It’s called the Internet of Things and, judging by all of the connected gadgets and appliances unveiled at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, it’s about to strip you of what little privacy you have left.
Taken piecemeal, there’s much to recommend about the idea of controlling household devices via voice control or smartphone apps. It’s cool having your heater or clothes dryer monitor how much power you’re using, or having your fridge alert you that you’re low on milk.
Put it all together, though, and you have a steady stream of data about your personal behavior that can be combined with other information to provide marketers, insurers and others with extremely intimate portraits of the life you lead when you think no one’s watching.
Gilad Rosner, founder of the Internet of Things Privacy Forum, a London think tank, gave the example of someone having a so-called smart scale in their bathroom. On the plus side, it could transmit data to a smartphone app that enables you to track your weight over various lengths of time and show which foods are having the biggest impact.
“But you might not know where else the information is going,” Rosner told me. “An insurer would want to know if you’re gaining a lot of weight. So would an employer.”
Tom Kellerman, chief cybersecurity officer of Dallas software firm Trend Micro, offered an even more alarming scenario: A hacker could slip in through a poorly protected smart appliance and gain access to your entire home network.
A highlight of the electronics show in Las Vegas was the Samsung Family Hub refrigerator. It uses your home Wi-Fi network to tell you when certain foods need reordering. It also snaps photos of its contents so you can check from afar that no one’s swiped that last piece of pie.
The Family Hub fridge allows you to order food right from its touch screen, stream music while you cook or turn off all the lights at bedtime.
This is the same Samsung that introduced a voice-controlled smart TV last year that could listen in on conversations in the home while awaiting commands.
Ted Harrington, executive partner with Baltimore consulting firm Independent Security Evaluators, said electronics manufacturers so far have done a relatively poor job of defending smart gadgets from hackers. “As with many emerging technologies, security is not effectively built into most connected devices today,” Harrington said.
Susan Etlinger, an analyst with San Francisco tech-research firm Altimeter Group, predicted that control of smart-device data would be the focus of aggressive industry lobbying in years ahead. “You can see this being painfully legislated,” she said.
In the meantime, consumers should take some simple precautions as connected gadgets in the home proliferate:
Strengthen the password for your Wi-Fi router to something hard to hack, using numbers, letters and symbols. Give each gadget a new and unique password — that is, a different password for each device.
Finally, install mobile security programs on every device that can accommodate them, such as tablets and smartphones. This will help alert you if an attack has been made on your home network.
David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist.