As if there weren’t enough all-too-valid reasons to feel paranoid these days, WikiLeaks just gave us a hellish boatload of new ones: a massive data dump of documents purportedly showing the extent and methods that the CIA and others can use everyday home electronics devices—cellphones, TVs, and much more—to spy on us. (The agency has refused to confirm or deny whether the documents are real.)
Ordinary Americans may feel like they’re in a spy novel these days, and a crazily far-fetched one at that. But the possibility that outside forces could seize control of your home technology is very real, say security experts. With the rise of smart devices, anything with a camera, microphone, and internet connection could be snooping on you, even as you read these words.
It’s your Apple 7 smartphone. The fancy new Amazon Echo you love showing off to friends. It’s your Nest smart thermostat system, your robot vac, your nanny cam, or your smart refrigerator. Even your beloved high-end Samsung TV could be a spy.
Scared yet? Well, that might be a very good thing.
“Consumers need to be extremely skeptical of what they’re buying and what they’re bringing into their house,” says Chris Dore, an attorney specializing in privacy and technology issues at Edelson PC in Chicago. Anything connected to the internet “can be exploited by your everyday hacker or by the government.”
There are plenty of reasons for this, but here’s what it boils down to: Hackers (who can range from the proverbial “400-pound guy sitting on his bed in New Jersey” to foreign government agents) need only to crack the code for just one of your connected devices to more easily get into your entire Wi-Fi network. Once they’re in, they may be able to control all of your connected devices, experts say.
But before you ditch your smart TV and break out the tinfoil hat, there are a few things you can do to protect your privacy.
Are your smart home devices spying on you?
Tip No. 1: Change your passwords
It may sound obvious, but changing all of your passwords is your first line of defense. You already know this about your laptops and phones, and most likely have already learned to use different passwords for each device that wouldn’t be easy to guess (like, um, “pa55word”). But many homeowners may not realize their smart appliances even have passwords.
That’s problematic because many devices come with the same stock passwords from the manufacturer. So anyone who knows that password has the key to get into it—and your Wi-Fi network.
So what should you do? Look at your device’s manual, and find out if the product is, indeed, “password protected.” If so, go online and find out the process to change it.
Tip No. 2: Update your software
Software updates, as annoying as they are, are also critical, as they often address newly discovered security weaknesses. Homeowners who don’t refresh their software leave themselves vulnerable to attacks. Again, this is a heck of a lot less obvious on a fridge than it is on a desktop computer, but it’s no less important.
“People need to run software updates to protect themselves.” says Jennifer Arcuri, CEO of Hacker House, a U.K.-based cybersecurity company. “That’s the easiest thing you can do.”
Go online to discover if your software is up to date. And always download new updates.
Tip No. 3: Cover your cameras and turn off voice automation
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg puts a piece of tape over the camera and microphone jack on his laptop—and you should, too.
The tape prevents hackers, government or otherwise, from listening in or watching you remotely, Arcuri says. Most of the time, folks aren’t even aware the devices have been compromised.
Folks can also turn off the voice automation settings on their devices.
Tape “is a very practical defense,” she says. Cheap, too!
Tip No. 4: Unplug devices when they’re not in use
For the most part, devices can’t spy on you if they’re not plugged in. So do more than just shut down your smart TV or laptop when you’re not around, experts say. Disconnect it entirely from its power source.
Hackers could breach your Wi-Fi network through your smart devices.
Tip No. 5: Read (all of) the fine print
Buyers should understand the risks to owning each smart product they install in their home or carry in their pocket, says attorney Dore. And they should see if the manufacturer is collecting their information before they bring their smart technology home.
Sometimes this info is hiding in plain site. For instance, Samsung warned smart TV customers in 2015 that it might listen to what they said with its voice activation feature—and then share that information with third parties. Read the fine print in manuals, and keep up to date with reviews and news briefs on tech sites.
Buyers should also assume that these devices may not be as secure as they appear.
“Don’t think that just because it’s a big brand name doesn’t mean they have good data security or are trying to encroach on your privacy,” Dore says. “Big companies are just as likely to fail.”
Tip No. 6: If in doubt, call in the professionals
Most people who aren’t criminals, celebrities, or C-suite executives may not think they have much to fear from hackers.
But hackers could conceivably break into your network through a smart microwave and then “turn your computer into a child pornography server,” says Jane LeClair, co-author of “Cybersecurity in Our Digital Lives.”
Folks worried about security should schedule an audit with cybersecurity professionals to test how private their home truly is, says LeClair, who’s also the president of the Washington Center for Cybersecurity Research and Development, based in Washington, DC.
“You really don’t know,” she says.