How to practice smart device security this holiday season

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This holiday season may not have traditional activities like the entire extended family gathered around the dinner table, backyard football games or viewing festive lights. We’ll likely be spending most or all of our time at home, away from the holiday hustle and bustle. 

More time at home means more time around your smart gadgets — and if you’re not careful, more potential risks for your connected home ecosystem. 

No matter your smart tech prowess, the holidays offer distinct digital security challenges. Brush up with these smart device tips so you can stay safe during the holiday season. 

Accept the realities of pandemic fatigue
In the United States, we’ve been practicing social distancing for much of 2020. Even if you’ve gone out for items like groceries or to pick up food, you’ve likely spent a majority of your time inside your home. It’s only natural to feel the effects of pandemic fatigue, and it might seem like even basic tasks take more mental effort and focus.

However, it’s important to still keep your guard up. When you’re coming into the house, be sure to close and lock your doors. If you’ve got a smart lock, you can avoid fumbling around for your keys in the dark. You’ll only need to enter a code or scan your fingerprint to get inside more quickly.

That caution should extend to the rest of your house, too. Our gadgets don’t know we’re in the midst of a pandemic. It falls on us, then, to take the steps to keep our smart tech safe. 

Check settings and updates upon installation and regularly after that
When we first get a new device, the temptation is to speed through setting it up. We want to connect it to our home or other devices and use it right away. That can prove a costly decision down the line.

As you’re installing your smart device, take a few minutes to read any accompanying instructions, whether it’s through a manual or an online guide. Some devices may default to a setting that shares more information than you’re comfortable divulging. For example, many smart televisions are capable of recording conversations, which means they may be picking up things you’re saying, even if the television appears to be turned off.  

The good news: Just about every smart gadget has a way to limit access for anyone that may use it—including someone outside of your home. You may be able to require entering a passcode or using a thumbprint, or you can control settings for other users. You’ll have to look within the settings of a device, but you can put security parameters in place and stay secure.

That device security should extend beyond the installation phase. Be sure to update whenever new versions of software are available. Yes, it’s a bit of a nuisance to wait while your device updates, since you were likely hoping to use it immediately. The extra time spent waiting will help patch potential bugs and issues that could compromise your security. That’s worth not being able to watch an episode of Schitt’s Creek for a few minutes.

Watch out for apps
Most smart products on the market today have a corresponding app. A smart cooker may have guided recipes on its app, or a tablet for children may allow you to control settings and play media through a standalone app.

Unfortunately, apps also offer another entry point for hackers. If they’re able to access it, they can drop malware onto your phone, access credit card data or hear conversations you’re having — and sometimes even participate themselves.

Before you download an app, be sure to read what kind of access you’re giving it. And only download from approved stores or vendors. If your child has a device, you can limit access so they can only make a purchase or download something if you approve it.

Just like your smart tech software, keep your apps updated, too. Newer versions of apps introduce new functionalities and more secure features. Developers take feedback from customers and implement it to better serve users. You can either update apps individually or set your smartphone or tablet to check for updates and have it happen automatically.

Keep an eye outside, too
A decade or two ago, holiday shopping looked a little different. You’d go to a store to pick out gifts for your friends and family. Maybe you navigated around the excessive line for Santa Claus at your local mall, or perhaps you even got into a scuffle with someone over the last toy in the store.

Today? The Internet has largely replaced those holiday department store trips. But the ease of online shopping brings another potential security risk: packages sitting at your door, unattended for hours. Some vendors will send packages in nondescript boxes, but others will use a product’s original packaging, making it quite obvious what’s inside. Even if you do still prefer to buy your presents in person, you could potentially leave those gifts easily visible in your car. 

If you can’t bring your gifts into your home immediately, keep them out of view, either in your trunk or tucked under a seat. Even better, install a security or doorbell camera to see what’s going on outside.

However, simply installing the camera isn’t enough. In fact, security cameras make up 47 percent of overall hacking attempts. Keep these devices secure by installing two-factor authentication, which can either be in the form of a passcode or a fingerprint scan. If you have smart locks and are traveling for the holidays, you can also offer a temporary code for guests so they can check in on things while you’re away.

Watch out for your guests
Traditionally, the holidays are a time for family and friends to get together and celebrate the year. The current guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend limiting holiday gatherings to the people within your household. The CDC also notes there are different levels of risk for holiday gatherings, so be sure to review those before hosting or attending any gatherings. 

If you do host people at your home, you’ll want to be extra vigilant around your smart devices. Your guests can be security threats, too — and they may not even realize it.

For example, with people more regularly coming in and out, you may disable the smart lock or alarm system for your home. If one of your guests doesn’t fully close the door, there’s an opportunity for someone else to enter.

Similarly, you may have someone fiddle with the settings on a smart TV, smartphone, tablet or other device as they attempt to get it working. There’s no malice behind their actions, but maybe they’ve turned on listening capabilities to all hours of the day, instead of only when the device is in use. When your guests have left, do a quick sweep to ensure everything is digitally tidy. 

Smart devices are meant to make our lives easier. And they provide plenty of benefits as long as we handle them responsibly. During this holiday season, take the extra precautions so you can truly let your smart technology brighten up the home.