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CybersecuritySecurity risks in the age of smart homes

By Earlence Fernandes

Published 31 May 2016

Smart homes, an aspect of the Internet of Things, offer the promise of improved energy efficiency and control over home security. Integrating various devices together can offer users easy programming of many devices around the home, including appliances, cameras and alarm sensors. There are great benefits to gain from smart homes, and the Internet of Things in general, that ultimately lead to an improved quality of living. However, given the security weaknesses in today’s systems, caution is appropriate.

Earlence Fernandes // Source: umich.edu

Smart homes, an aspect of the Internet of Things, offer the promise of improved energy efficiency and control over home security. Integrating various devices together can offer users easy programming of many devices around the home, including appliances, cameras and alarm sensors. Several systems can handle this type of task, such as Samsung SmartThings, Google Brillo/Weave, Apple HomeKit, Allseen Alljoyn and Amazon Alexa.

But there are also security risks. Smart home systems can leave owners vulnerable to serious threats, such as arson, blackmail, theft and extortion. Current security research has focused on individual devices, and how they communicate with each other. For example, the MyQ garage system can be turned into a surveillance tool, alerting would-be thieves when a garage door opened and then closed, and allowing them to remotely open it again after the residents had left. The popular ZigBee communication protocol can allow attackers to join the secure home network.

Little research has focused on what happens when these devices are integrated into a coordinated system. We set out to determine exactly what these risks might be, in the hope of showing platform designers areas in which they should improve their software to better protect users’ security in future smart home systems.

Evaluating the security of smart home platforms
First, we surveyed most of the above platforms to understand the landscape of smart home programming frameworks. We looked at what systems existed, and what features they offered. We also looked at what devices they could interact with, whether they supported third-party apps, and how many apps were in their app stores. And, importantly, we looked at their security features.

We decided to focus deeper inquiry on SmartThings because it is a relatively mature system, with 521 apps in its app store, supporting 132 types of IoT devices for the home. In addition, SmartThings has a number of conceptual similarities to other, newer systems that make our insights potentially relevant more broadly. For example, SmartThings and other systems offer trigger-action programming, which lets you connect sensors and events to automate aspects of your home. That is the sort of capability that can turn your walkway lights on when a driveway motion detector senses a car driving up, or can make sure your garage door is closed when you turn your bedroom light out at night.