Why You Shouldn't Worry So Much About Hackers Breaking Into Your SmartHome Device

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Does choosing a proprietary smart home system/protocol make the product safer (harder to hack) than something like Z-Wave? originally appeared on Quora: the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Jonathan Brill, Start-up specialist, on Quora:

Proprietary communication systems, or one off protocols, don’t necessarily mean a system is safer. In fact, depending on the actual protocol, it could make it much more susceptible to interference. If I was worried about such a thing, here are the things I’d be most aware of:

Home Wi-Fi-based products like thermostats or security cameras where the default security setting is set to off. There’s basically no payoff for the hacker here, so reports of someone hacking into a baby monitor, while compelling, just aren’t common enough to really be worried about. To do this, hackers have to penetrate your Wi-Fi network, find your Wi-Fi-enabled baby monitor on the network, and play around with options enough until they’re yelling obscenities at your sleeping infant [1]. But if I’m hacking into your Wi-Fi network, yelling at your kids is way less interesting than installing a keylogger on your laptop and waiting for you to log back into Amazon. The stories of these things are sensational and eye-catching, but about as common as people getting gored by reindeer in Mexico.

RF interference can affect proprietary 900MHz networks. It turns out that a number of home security products have used 900MHz as a protocol (including some versions of Z-wave), particularly for the transmissions between the door and window sensors and the base unit. 900MHz isn’t as popular as 400MHz for these, because the range and power efficiency aren’t as good, and the bandwidth is overkill for the binary message these kinds of sensors need to send. But either way, a number of popular, name-brand products invested in using some version of proprietary 900 MHz (there’s no real standard, not like Wi-Fi, and 900MHz runs slightly different in major international regions, making it an expensive manufacturing choice for an international product). To hack or disrupt a 900MHz system like this, you just need to flood the area with noise. This is easy to do from a vehicle in front of a house, and it’s one of the major problems with 900MHz overall and why most smarthome manufactures stray away from it, despite the obvious power and range advantages. If you’re a home invader and know that your target is using one of the 900MHz-based networks, you’d simply start by flooding their network with noise, crowding out any signal from the window or door sensors you’re about to trip.

There are other sporadic and rather alarmist reports of people with internet-connected appliances having them taken over, hackers breaking into someone’s cable box, etc—but all of these things cost way more for the hacker to do than for the homeowner to deal with.

If you’re choosing a class of smarthome products, it makes more sense to select a brand with a reputation for making high quality products in that space than think about the protocol. Integration with things like HomeKit or Alexa are going to make protocols less important anyway.

Footnotes

[1] Baby Monitor Hacker Still Terrorizing Babies And Their Parents

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