Privacy issue: Appliances could be smart spies, transmitting information about you to who knows where: Internet Scambusters #1,068
Smart appliances - Wi-Fi connected equipment like washing machines and microwaves - could also be smart spies.
Research shows they may continuously send back data to manufacturers and even third parties, as well as being a hacking risk. And we don't know what they're talking about.
In this week's privacy issue, we'll explain why they may be doing this and the steps you can take to limit them.
Let's get started…
Are Smart Spies At Work In Your Home?
Is your stove spying on you? If you bought it in the last few years, it could be. And your dishwasher, laundry appliances, microwave, refrigerator, and freezer.
That's because many of today's "smart" home appliances come with a built-in internet connection. If you activate the Wi-Fi link, it'll almost certainly start transmitting data back to the manufacturer.
This can include information not only on how and when you use the appliance but also personal information like your name, address, age, phone number, and more. Furthermore, through its control app on your phone, it may also be talking to other people who are interested in your activity.
But is that a bad thing? Well, in terms of your privacy, it certainly could be. You could call them smart spies.
Take the case of software architect Stephan van Rooij, who recently discovered his oven was making regular contact with sites in Russia and China. Not for any sinister purpose but to check it was still connected to the web.
This is known in the tech biz as "pinging." You contact an external server and if it replies, you know your internet connection is up. A good way to do this is to contact a site you can be sure is actually operational. In this case, the stove pinged search engine sites like Google and those two others in China and Russia.
On the face of it, pinging should be quite harmless.
But… "I really don't like the fact that my oven connects to China and Russia just to check if it has an internet connection," van Rooij says. "If that is the only thing it's doing."
However, in some cases, that isn't the only thing it's doing. Research published last month by Consumer Reports (CR) found that all 12 smart appliances it tested were continuously collecting data about users and sending it back to the manufacturers. In some cases, this included the confidential information mentioned above.
Furthermore, connecting your appliances to the internet could make your home Wi-Fi network vulnerable to hacking, ultimately allowing crooks to access and steal other confidential data, although, as CR reports, "you should be more concerned about manufacturers spying on you, not hackers."
So why do they do it?
The claim is that having your appliances online is a good thing.
They "need" to connect to Wi-Fi so they can check for feature updates, check whether they're working properly, diagnose faults, see what's left in your refrigerator and let you know when your dinner is ready, your laundry is dry, or your dishes are clean!
Nevertheless, there's a possible downside. One in every five Americans currently has a smart appliance and half of them say they're worried about digital security and privacy.
CR found that some appliances were sending the equivalent of thousands of text messages back to their home base every week. The data was encrypted, which keeps it secure but also prevents the likes of CR from knowing what the appliances are "talking" about.
"ZIP codes, phone numbers, date of birth, geolocation, and more are obviously not relevant to the product performance and service," said the publisher's privacy expert Steven Blair. "That's why we feel they have data collection practices that could be harmful to consumers."
In fact, the study found that some of the phone apps used to "talk" to appliances contained third-party trackers.
"Most manufacturers claim all of this data is being collected to improve their products," says the CR report, "but our findings show that at least some are using it to create data profiles about their consumers."
And, although connecting them to the internet is supposedly optional, some appliances may actually force consumers into connecting to activate certain features. In other instances, the addition of latest technology could indirectly shorten the lifespan of equipment.
Worries about what's really going on behind the scenes tie in with similar concerns about many other home-based smart equipment linked to the web, known as the Internet of Things (IoT), which we covered in issue #716: How the Internet of Things Threatens Your Security.
Says CR Director of Technology, Justin Brookman: "In many cases, the data collection may be benign or even beneficial. But pretty much all of the time the data collection is invisible, and consumers have no idea what's being collected, why, or with whom it's being shared."
Take Control of Your Privacy
There's no doubt that Wi-Fi connected appliances and devices offer benefits like convenience and control, and many consumers who use them say they prefer to stay connected. But it should be your choice, right?
So, when you're making that purchase decision or if you already have connected devices, make sure you thoroughly check out their capability. Research what others say about your particular equipment and read the manufacturer's disclosures on Wi-Fi connectivity.
Learn, for example, whether Wi-Fi is needed in order to activate some of the features you want.
Here are some further actions recommended by Consumer Reports:
- If your router - the device that distributes Wi-Fi in your home - has the option of adding a "guest network," use it and connect your IoT appliances and devices to this. It means if hackers get into this equipment, they still won't be able to get to your main network and its trove of information.
- Check and change your phone's privacy settings to limit when an app is allowed to share data - ideally to only when the app is actually being used.
- Also check each individual app's privacy settings and, if available, turn off permission to track you or your usage.
It won't be long before all our home appliances are smart spies, for better or worse. So, it makes sense to take control now.
This Week's Alert
WeChat scam: Popular messaging app WeChat is being used by scammers with an unusual trick to promote fake investment opportunities. They tell would-be investors to buy overpriced electronic equipment from them to generate eventual returns of up to 40 percent. Sounds crazy and it is. Just like all those other get-rich-quick con tricks. But plenty of people have apparently fallen for it.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!