Build a safer smart home: 4 tips to sidestep hacking

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Today, smart homes are all the rage, especially from a security standpoint. Many people believe that by installing digital locks, security cameras and other high-tech devices, they can make their homes safer.

Unfortunately, as more people install smart home devices, users are discovering that their systems are vulnerable to hackers and other criminals. How can we help these tools do their jobs more effectively?

If we want smart devices to actually make our homes safer, we have to take a step backwards. This includes both taking precautions against hacking as well as using more traditional security methods. By adopting the following four strategies, your home will be protected by comprehensive security practices, rather than exclusively "smart" security tools.

Keep it simple

When it comes to choosing devices for your smart home, the fact of the matter is that less is more. By minimizing the number of devices you install, you also minimize the number of opportunities hackers have to access your home.

While it’s nice to be able to control your thermostat or other appliances while away from home, consider how often you'll really use these devices. We've reached a point where people have begun to feel like they need a smart thermostat, but it wasn't that long ago that people didn't even know what they were.

Could you continue to make do with the traditional thermostat if it meant your home had one fewer digital entry point?

A smart thermostat is just an example. The point is to carefully consider what devices will meaningfully impact your life in a positive way, and to focus on integrating those smart gadgets into your home.

Know your weak points

Although smart homes are still a fairly new concept, they've been around long enough that key weaknesses have been uncovered. This has happened, in large part, thanks to hackers.

Yes, that's right, the people digitally breaking into your home are also making your home safer. Hacks expose systemic weak points, demonstrating how some smart home devices can enable unauthorized surveillance, assist in information theft or otherwise be compromised by outsiders. What good is the digital lock if anyone with enough computer know-how can open it?

In response to this information, device manufacturers have been able to improve their products so they protect your home more effectively. You can also purchase security software for your smart home devices, essentially adding security to your security.

Think analog -- but better

It's the oldest trick in the book: You're going on vacation, do you leave on some lights or attach your lamps to a timer so that it appears that people are coming and going?

We do this because we assume that a house that appears occupied it safer than one that appears empty -- and research supports this. That's why, even more than alarms or security cameras, smart light bulbs can boost home security.

Smart light bulbs are easier to program than traditional timers, can be controlled remotely, and boast additional useful features. Connected to various sensors, Phillips Hue bulbs, for example, can turn on if a door opens or when someone approaches the house. Some also switch on in response to the doorbell, making it appear as though someone has gotten up to answer the door, even when the house is empty. This is an excellent burglar deterrent.

Don’t forget the basics

Perhaps the biggest mistake that smart home owners make is neglecting security basics because they feel their devices offer sufficient protection. Maybe you forgot to lock your windows, you announce you're going away on social media, or you don't encrypt your internet connection. Any of these small errors can make your home vulnerable in ways your smart home devices may not be able to compensate for.

Additionally, if you fail to encrypt your internet connection your smartphone devices become essentially useless. Anyone can connect to them, change your settings, and physically or digitally access your home.

In the future, your smart home may be able to alert you to such problems or correct them on its own, but such possibilities are still in development. Manufacturers are currently hoping to develop machine learning systems for smart home technology. Such systems would allow your devices to study data based on your behavior and pattern recognition to make your home safer. Currently, however, most smart home devices do not yet have the necessary processing power to do this.

Smart home devices have great potential, but they don't provide absolute security. In fact, for the savvy hacker, they can be a gateway to more information than you could ever imagine -- much more information than was available when we relied exclusively on metal locks, outdoor sensor lights, and other basic security measures. Today, optimal security combines the two, bolstering advanced technology with timeless tools.

The future of the smart home is uncertain. The average consumer continues to add vulnerable technology to their home, often with little awareness of external threats. As these tools become further centralized through home assistants like Alexa and Google Home, additional risks are bound to emerge.

We can face them head on by learning what tricks hackers use or we can open the door -- literally -- to burglary and digital manipulation. Overall, safety will hinge on consumer education.

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