10 Ways to Protect the Security of Connected Home Products

Cujo is one of a new generation of home firewall products

This has been a very popular topic of conversation in the Life-Changing Products exhibit. One out of five people who visit worry that connecting a door lock, camera, or garage door opener to their Wi-Fi system will compromise their security. The concerns are well-founded, if you’ve done absolutely nothing to build a line of defense.

Doing most of the 10 items on this page should protect your home from hackers and viruses. The bad news is that this is a never-ending quest. You need to be continually vigilant about changing your passcodes, looking for software updates for connected home products, and making sure you have the latest and greatest software protection.

  1. Get a better router. Cable company execs come through the booth all the time who admit that security was a joke with the first generation of wireless routers. The companies would put in cheap devices with simple passcodes so that their installers could work on them easily. You need to upgrade to a new, better-protected one, which may only cost $200. It’s important to check your ISP provider’s website to see what routers they support. These days many devices run at 5.0 as well as 2.4 GHz. Get one that sends both signals, since some of the newest connected products look for 5.0 GHz networks.
  2. Change the admin username and password on the router. Routers come with generic usernames and passwords. They are widely published on the Internet, making it easy for outsiders to get in your system. Create a name and passcode that only you know, and, if you are concerned that a neighbor may be freeloading on your system, change it periodically, although that means re-setting your connected devices.
  3. Make sure the encrypted function is activated. Experts in this field say this is the single most important step you can take. Go to your router’s settings, which you’ll have to do from a computer. It’s not hard. Look for the security options. Turn on WPA2 Personal. Set the encryption type to AES. Avoid TKIP, if that’s an option.
  4. Enter a long, complicated passcode for encryption. Make sure it isn’t the same passcode that you used for the router. It’s what you’ll enter on all the devices that you connect to the router. So it should probably be something that you can remember. Even so, use a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters to make it strong. Here’s a good article about the topic.
  5. Double up your firewall. The router probably has a built-in firewall to protect your internal network from outside attacks. It often goes by the name stateful packet inspection (SPI) or network address translation (NAT). Make sure it’s on. You may want to install a firewall on your PC as well so that your own software doesn’t send data without your permission.
  6. Update your router software. Router software is no different than other software. It needs to be updated periodically. Hackers find holes that they can exploit. Go to your router settings every month or so to check for updates. New firmware with expanded functionality may come with the update, and that’s a good thing. Same goes for the software that supports your connected home products. Check periodically for updates.
  7. Turn off Wi-Fi Protected Set-Up. This function allows devices to easily pair with your router. You push a button on the router and the device and they talk. If someone were to break in your house, they could push the button, pair a device with it, and get on your system.
  8. Create a separate Wi-Fi network for home devices. According to security experts interviewed by the New York Times, this will make it harder for hackers to infiltrate a personal computer on the network. The easiest way to do this is to use the guest network that typically comes with your router. But you need to make sure it’s encrypted and has strong password protection. Norton, a king of PC security, likes that approach, too.
  9. Buy a home firewall device. At least two have hit the market. Cujo is a smart home firewall that connects to your router and secures home devices from hacks and web threats. It sells for $249 without a subscription fee. It will be featured in the LCP exhibit this fall and next spring. Norton sells a product called the Core that provides similar protection, and serves as your home router. It costs $279 and comes with a small subscription fee.
  10. Create a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is something that corporate executives often do when they work extensively from home. A VPN creates a private tunnel between a device and the Internet through a third-party server. It can hide your identity and even make it look like you are from another country. Some security experts say this is the only way to truly protect your home system.

If you take most of the action on this list you’ll be several giant steps ahead of your neighbors. In that way, the legendary (mythical?) hacker sitting in a car outside your house will find it hard enough to hack your system that he just moves on to the next house. Or decides it would be easier to just break a window and enter your house.

About Boyce Thompson

Boyce Thompson, the author of The New New Home, is a writer and editor who has spent more than 30 years covering the housing market. Thompson began his career as a writer for publications such as The Washington Post, Governing, Practical Homeowner, Venture, and Changing Times, the precursor to the Kiplinger Letter.