Kellyanne Conway is right, partially: Here're 5 'not-so-smart' home appliances that can be hacked

Kukil Bora

The White House has taken the recent controversy, surrounding US President Donald Trump's claim that his predecessor Barack Obama wiretapped his phones during the presidential election campaign last fall, to another level. If Trump's senior aide Kellyanne Conway is to be believed, the rabbit hole is deeper than you think.

During a recent interview with USA Today, Conway suggested that people can be monitored through various devices they use, ranging from phones and television sets to microwaves. Yes, microwaves.

"What I can say is there are many ways to surveil each other," Conway said, adding that surveillance could be conducted with "microwaves that turn into cameras."

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Conway's claim is still an unsubstantiated one. But she did make a valid point about the vulnerability of home appliances like microwaves that could be easy targets for hackers.

Even the Department of Homeland Security issued strategic principles for Internet of Things in November last year to help stakeholders "make responsible and risk-based security decisions as they design, manufacture, and use internet-connected devices and systems."

Put simply, the so-called smart household appliances are actually not smart enough to avoid cyber-intrusions. And, with the number of IoT devices being projected to reach more than 20 billion by 2020, the risk is growing even futher.

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Let's have a look at five such appliances that you probably won't consider shielding from cyber criminals:

Smart TVs

The recent revelations by WikiLeaks described how hackers can insert fake modes into televisions to make them appear to be off, and use them to record audio and video. The WikiLeaks documents specifically mentioned about a CIA hack, codenamed Weeping Angel, which applies only to certain Samsung television sets from 2012 and 2013.

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Similar incidents happened in the past too. In 2013, an IT consultant reportedly discovered that a flat-screen LG smart TV in his living room was invading his family's privacy. He found out that the TV was not only showing him "targeted" ads based on programs he had been watching, but it was also sending information about every button he pressed on the remote control to LG's headquarter in South Korea.

According to experts, one of the best ways to secure smart TVs from hackers is to keep the software updated. Keeping separate Internet lines for the TV and computers is another possible defense against hackers.

Smart refrigerators

Forget about melted ice cream if your smart refrigerator is acting up. The anomaly could be a result of a hacking attempt, which could lead to confidential data theft.

In August 2015, a group of researchers from security company Pen Test Partners discovered a serious vulnerability in Samsung smart refrigerators that hackers can easily exploit to steal login credentials of Gmail users. The researchers found that a particular model of Samsung smart refrigerator didn't validate SSL certificates, a security-authenticating device that was implemented to secure the Gmail integration. The security flaw left user credentials vulnerable to hackers who can access the users' Wi-Fi networks.

In a similar incident in January 2014, researchers found that a smart refrigerator was hacked and used as part of a spam attack that targeted over 100,000 devices.

Smart light bulbs

It's really cool when you turn on the lights in your home with just a swipe on your smartphone. But hackers can exploit the same feature to make your life miserable.

In a recent report, researchers detailed a scenario in which some Philips Hue lights were controlled by white hat hackers using a drone. They even managed to make them blink S-O-S in Morse code, a method of transmitting text information as a series of on-off tones, lights, or clicks. To demonstrate the threat, researchers infected a Hue lamp with a virus which later spread to other lamps as well.

The hacking of smart light bulbs may not sound all that hazardous. However, security experts believe that cyber criminals can use these to infect devices with a computer worm, which could further attack other IoT devices on the same network.

Digital Video Recorders

Network-connected digital video recorders (DVRs) are also among ill-fated IoT devices that can easily be breached by hackers to disrupt services.

Johannes B. Ullrich, a researcher and chief technology officer for the SANS Internet Storm Center, wrote in a blog post in October last year that a stream of telnet connection attempts crashed his DVR when he connected it to a cable modem Internet connection to see how easily hackers can remotely takeover such devices. Ullrich also discovered that a malware called Mirai was commanding his DVR to scan the Internet for other vulnerable devices.

Printers

If not configured properly, a network-connected printer can become an easy target for hackers to gain access to your network and produce denial of service attacks. They can also use it as a launch pad to attack other devices on your network.

Last month, a hacker claimed that he hacked into 150,000 insecure printers in an effort to raise awareness about the "dangers of leaving printers exposed online without a firewall or other security settings enabled."

The hacker used his own automated script to detect insecure printers manufactured by leading companies like HP, Brother, Epson and Canon, and then instructed them to print a document to inform victims of the hack.

What can we do?

The best and the easiest way to defend against hacking attempts is to make sure that automatic update installation is enabled for all the smart appliances. Reboots can also help you get rid off malicious code; however, it's only a temporary remedy.

Here  are few things that users can do to increase safety of their smart home appliances:

  • Ensure that the router has WPA2 encryption enabled. It's a network security technology that requires use of stronger encryption methods for Wi-Fi wireless networks.
  • Place the router close to the smart device, because a weaker connection between the router and the smart device makes it easier for anyone to breach the Wi-Fi network.
  • Use strong passwords.
  • Act smart and think whether the benefits of IoT matter to you. There's no harm if your refrigerator is alien to a Google calendar.

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