The Other Side of Smart Home Tech: Spying

February 11, 2016

The U.S. intelligence chief acknowledged in testimony this week that it plans to include smart household devices to increase its surveillance capabilities. Household devices that are connected to the Internet – known as the “Internet of Things” – may offer consumers some added convenience in monitoring their home, and it may allow the government to increase its monitoring of households too.

“In the future, intelligence services might use the [internet of things] for identification, surveillance, monitoring, location tracking, and targeting for recruitment, or to gain access to networks or user credentials,” James Clapper, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said in testimony to the Senate on Tuesday.

That said, the intelligence chief says that “worldwide threats” from terrorism as well as domestically “homegrown extremists” top its lists of greatest national security threats that may warrant such household monitoring.

“Security experts examining the internet of things take as a given that the U.S. and other surveillance services will intercept the signals the newly networked devices emit, much as they do with those from cellphones,” The Guardian reports. “Amateurs are already interested in easily compromised hardware; computer programmer John Matherly’s search engine Shodan indexes thousands of completely unsecured web-connected devices.”

On Tuesday, the White House unveiled a new cybersecurity initiative that included a pledge to ramp up security for non-traditional networked home devices. The Department of Homeland Security will be testing and certifying networked devices within the “Internet of Things.”

A study by Harvard’s Beckman Center for Internet and Society, released last week, shows that connected household devices offer an unobtrusive way for intelligence agencies to listen or watch a target.

In February 2015, media reports, for example, revealed that microphones within Samsung “smart” TVs were “always on” and could allow hackers to intercept audio from inside a household.

“Law enforcement or intelligence agencies may start to seek orders compelling Samsung, Google, Mattel, Nest or vendors of other networked devices to push an update or flip a digital switch to intercept the ambient communications of a target,” the authors in the Harvard study note.

Source: “U.S. Intelligence Chief: We Might Use the Internet of Things to Spy on You,” The Guardian (Feb. 9, 2016)