Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

Ding dong: Is that a hacker ringing your smart video doorbell?

How to keep technology from compromising your security

The smart video doorbell may be ringing in a new era in our reliance on technology, in that it addresses a weird problem that few of saw coming.

The pandemic, as is often the case these days, is the root cause. We need stuff, but don’t want to go to the local mega mart and face crowds and possible COVID-19 infection. So we have that stuff delivered. Soon, it arrives, clean and convenient, on our doorsteps. So do the “porch pirates” – the thieves who get to it before we do.

That doorbell camera can serve as a deterrent, making sure we get whatever we need to survive isolation, figuratively or literally. But the tradeoff might be another threat: data breaches. In fall 2019, a security flaw identified in one brand exposed users’ Wi-Fi usernames and passwords.

NAIT network security analyst Daniel Juan Toral (Bachelor of Technology in Technology Management ’16) thinks the chances your smart doorbell will swing open the doors to hackers is low. But he also sees the technology potentially sounding the alarm on shaky data security, as the Internet of Things – doorbells included – inevitably creeps into other aspects of life.

Here are Toral's recommendations for staying safe, whether or not trouble awaits on the doorstep.

Check reputation and models

Before buying a smart doorbell made by a company he hasn't heard of before, or even from one he has, Toral would go online.

“I would look up [the company’s] reputation,” he says. “Unfortunately these doorbells haven’t really been focusing on security.” He’d check for security issues, specifically for the model of the device in question, and take a pass on anything that looks the least bit lax.

Lock down your system

Your smart doorbell will connect to your home network, so that network needs to be safe from prying eyes. That begins with your router, that little box that liaises between the internet and devices in your home that need it. Securing the router and your network can be done with a little help from, well, the internet, and making sure that:

  • you’ve set a unique name for your router (using its factory-set default name can make your network easier to hack)
  • your network offers sufficient encryption, protecting the information it carries
  • you’ve reset the router's default password, which allows you to initially access and set it up
     

That last one applies to a smart doorbell, too, says Toral. “Default passwords are a big threat.”

Keep up with updates

computer updating software

“People who are building Internet of Things devices, including doorbells and closed-circuit TVs, may not put the biggest effort into security,” says Toral. “In most cases, they do the minimum.”

This can mean that software updates won’t automatically be pushed to a device. Instead, you'll likely have to go looking for them. “In the best-case scenario, the manufacturer will publish this update online and it’s up to you to apply it to your device.”

Be ready to replace the devices

electronics garbage

Toral has little confidence that an inexpensive doorbell camera bought today will be supported by a manufacturer years later. Software updates might dry up as the maker moves on to new products, leaving vulnerabilities unresolved. There may be no choice but to purchase and install a new, supported device.

“You have to keep in mind that probably in a few years you’ll have to replace it,” says Toral.

Get ready for more of the same in the future

package delivered to home

Is someone going to hack your doorbell and unleash ransomware on your systems tomorrow? Probably not. But what about the day after tomorrow?

The more we rely on the internet to solve novel problems, and continue to connect smart devices to it, says Toral, the more we need to take things like doorbell camera security seriously.

“Now that we are moving into this Internet of Things, most people assume that it is safe,” he says. “It’s good to shine a spotlight on new ways that we are interacting with technology. Maybe right now it’s not a big risk.”

But who knew, Toral adds, that we’d ever be in a situation that would require a quick fix “to make sure that no one takes our Amazon boxes”? Porch pirates may be merely the vanguard of challenges to come.

“I think, with time, we will have to start being more careful about these things.”


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