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Smart Home Step 8: Router Vulnerability

Posted On - 24/11/2017 08:00:10

Today people don't need to break-in to nick your stuff. They can do it from outside. They can hack your Wi-FiTwo months ago I started out on a journey. One to help you get the measure of Smart Home and decide whether to make it your business. Ten posts later I've covered a lot of ground. From setting up a Smart Plug, to getting Alexa to print your spares list - we've done it all.

The world of Smart – the internet of things – presents amazing possibilities. It's a great business opportunity. But it's not over yet. There are other ways to make money from it…

No-one leaves their house unlocked

Ever gone out and left the front door unlocked? If you have you'll know how worried you felt. Hoping no-one would notice ‘till you got home. Or maybe you couldn't wait and turned round the moment you realised?

Whichever doesn't matter, you'll always remember how it made you feel. The thought of some thief taking your stuff - ugh! No doubt you vowed to always lock the door. Perhaps you invented a failsafe routine. Problem is today people don't need to break-in to nick your stuff. They can do it from outside. They can hack your Wi-Fi.

Remote access

90% UK households had internet access in 2017. Put another way that means there's a little over 24.5M routers out there.

Now, routers come as part of the ISPs (internet service providers) package, it's all part of the price. Good value but the reality is this costs. Those routers are the cheapest to do the job and there are millions of them in use.

But does this matter as long as they work? Not if you don't care because they're cheap they'll be low spec. And not if you don't care hackers will be out to break them because being cheap means they're easy to crack.

Not top priority

Smart Plugs, Smart Radiator Valves, Smart… whatever, they're all built so you can ‘tap the app' and they work. Convenient but it means they work straight from the cloud.

Now like routers, costs matter so Smart Devices don't come with anything they don't need. Critically, they've no security protection - they don't even have the hardware to run it. Does this matter? If the world were benign it wouldn't. But it isn't and with nothing but a cheap router between you and the web, you might as well have your front door wide open. You might as well lay down the red carpet and invite the malware in.

Hackers have already attacked Smart devices. They've used CCTV cameras and printers to attack popular websites. The University of Mitchigan with Microsoft hacked a popular Smart Home platform. They found they could set off connected smoke alarms at will. And could plant a "back door" PIN into a Smart Lock.

Security problems with Smart Home devices aren't made up – they're very real.

What's the problem with cheap routers?

There are three issues with cheap routers. Things that could mean you've real security problems on your hands. First, does yours use the WPA2 Wi-Fi protocol? If it doesn't and uses WEP, it's vulnerable - it's known to be hackable. Second, does yours have a firewall? OK, few don't but that's because without one your home network is completely exposed to potential malware. But whatever, these two are big problems – stuff you shouldn't ignore.

Of course if you've got WPA2 Wi-Fi you can easily improve its security. Simply change its identity (SSID) to anything obscure and the password to something strong. And if you've got a firewall, make sure it's switched on! Both these are better than nothing but they don't deal with the real showstopper - the third issue with cheap routers. The ability to run more than one network (VLAN).

Do I have to trade up?

By now you should be picking up Smart Devices are vulnerable. So it's plain unwise to run them on the same network as anything used for online banking or shopping. What's needed is the means to separate them: a router that can run more than one network (VLAN). Problem is the one your ISP supplied, or any other cheap one, is unlikely to be able to do this.

If you're running Smart Home devices find out if your router will operate VLANs. If it does follow the advice below. If it doesn't you should very seriously consider trading up. Today most ISPs will allow it, double check the terms of your agreement and make sure yours does. I checked BT, Talk-Talk and Virgin - they all do.

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