Is your house spying on you?

A smart home
"I always feel like somebody's watching me..."
Log into FridgeCam – it’s an app which connects to a camera mounted in your fridge, so you can peer into its chilly belly, wherever you are in the world.
  • | by Amanda Bathory

Pick up the phone, dial a number and listen carefully for the tell-tale tap between the crackling connections. A click confirms it - someone, somewhere is listening in on your call.

'The Internet of Things’ is delivering home spy tech to make James Bond jealous. It’s a network of devices that chat to one another and exchange data over the internet. We’re talking fridges, lamps, stereos, kettles, hoovers, toys and many others.

They save time, boast sleek designs and could even save you money.

However, in exchange for efficiency, glamour and comfort, they may inadvertently compromise your privacy, particularly if the gadget’s digital security isn’t up to par. Loose lips sink ships, after all.

Dr Ian Levy, technical director at the National Cyber Security Centre, part of GCHQ, says: “The Internet of Things could positively change our lives - boosting productivity, keeping us healthier and much more. But it also presents new challenges, and there must be just as big a step change in protecting these devices so the benefits aren’t outweighed by potential security risks.”

Opportunistic hackers, advertisers, even MI5 and the CIA may keep an eagle eye on your wifi passwords, server codes and personal details. So, if you don’t want strangers to know you better, it’s time to figure out what tech’s most secure and how you can protect your home from sneaky spies.

MI5 in MI-home

A family watch the television together

In March 2017, WikiLeaks exposed MI5 and the CIA for bugging televisions, phones, iPads and on-board computers in cars and lorries to record conversations and take photos.

Samsung smart TVs from 2012 and 2013 were susceptible to a ‘fake off mode' hack. The set would appear to be off (sporting a blank screen and dimmed LED buttons) but it captured footage and audio anyway. According to WikiLeaks, a blue LED light illuminated on the back of the set was the only giveaway that the television was watching you.

If MI5 tries to hack your TV… well... we can’t really help you with that one. But, you can keep your lounge life private from other hackers by keeping your TV’s security installations up to date, and by putting a sticker over any cameras built in or attached to the TV when you’re not using it. If you have any concerns, call 101 and speak to the police.

A Roomba with privacy

What’s that purring at your feet? No, it’s not Cat Damon – a mog with the agility and cunning of Jason Bourne – it’s iRobot’s Roomba, autonomously sucking up croissant crumbs, chasing tumbleweeds...recording the footprint of your home.

Say, what now?

Yes, folks. iRobot’s top-of-the-range super sleuth Roomba has turned cartographer to make detailed maps of the spaces it cleans. It has a spatial measuring laser, and it’s not afraid to use it.

iRobot’s chief exec, Colin Angle, says he wants to share Roomba’s dutifully made custom maps with Amazon, Apple and Google, to use as they will.

If spatial mapping can re-tune shopping algorithms and call time on measuring up for sofas and blinds for good, it’s easy to get on board.

But Roomba is gathering other intelligence, according to iRobot’s T&C’s , about the websites you visit, your IP address, info about your mobile device including apps you use, and referring webpages pages, to name just a few. If you delete, or block cookies in your browser, that’ll help keep iRobot’s data mining at arm’s length.

And if you ever move home, remember to notify iRobot and ask it to forget the details of your home, just as a courtesy to the new occupier.

Smart meters

A smart meter

The government has promised that every home in the UK will have a smart meter by 2020, and as a result, Blighty will save £40bn by 2050.

But, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. EDF has installed 4.7 million smart meters in French homes, sometimes without gaining permission from the homeowner, and French campaigners aren’t happy. They say smart meter technology puts privacy at risk, and they’ve prepared class action against the energy provider to prevent the installation of new meters and to remove installed PLC meters.

Should we be as worried back across the channel? The jury’s out on that one.

British Gas’ T&Cs  promise it’ll collect info only from its customers’ smart meters, and it’ll use your data to analyse “details about you and your household, your income and your lifestyle,” plus the way you use energy, and that’s used for its own and third party marketing. You’ve opted in by being a customer.

Connecting kitchens

If you’re down the shops without a shopping list, debating whether you need milk or not, just log into FridgeCam – it’s an app which connects to a camera mounted in your fridge, so you can peer into its chilly belly, wherever you are in the world.

You’ll get similar thrills if you’ve got an iKettle and you’re running late for work – open the app, put the kettle on to boil and iron your business attire, fluster-free, with plenty of time for a cuppa.

Smarter – the whiz kids behind FridgeCam and iKettle – went into overdrive to protect its products and customers from hackers.

“Smarter safeguards devices by employing world-leading and secure out-of-bound BlinkUp pairing technology,” a spokesperson told us.

“We utilise a third-party service called 'Electric Imp', which is an industry-leading cybersecurity platform for our connected products. We also use Google Firebase, a single secure entry point into our cloud servers, allowing controlled access and secure authentication.”

BlinkUp is “snoop-proof”, but Smarter recommends that for an extra level of security that you must change your passwords and update your apps related to smart gadgets regularly, and always use two-step authentication.

How to protect your home

A family looking on a tablet device

Britons’ rights in relation to personal data are due to improve under new data protection laws. These changes will force companies to forget your information or face a fine of £17m, or 4% of their global turnover – all you have to do is ask them to delete your information.

GCHQ’s Dr Levy says: “We’re committed to creating a country that is resilient to cyber threats, prosperous and confident in the digital world, and we want internet-connected devices to be secure by default, with appropriate, inbuilt cyber security measures.” He advises people to “follow GCHQ’s password guidance, such as changing their device’s default password as soon as they get it home.

“While the risk is substantial, it's certainly not insurmountable. Our job is to make the risks stay as small as possible as smart devices proliferate, and that the benefit of using them continues to far outweigh the security risk.”