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Alexa And Home Automation – What You Need To Know About Security

If Alexa were a human being, it’s astounding to think she would still be a toddler. In her short existence, Amazon’s voice-activated virtual assistant has commanded our attention and dominated our homes and offices.

Modern homes and offices are “connected”, stocked with devices that are able to communicate with each other for home automation – any home or office that has an Internet connection is capable of the same. What makes Alexa so wildly popular isn’t just her ability to connect with us through a device as a virtual assistant, but Alexa’s ability to communicate with other devices, as well.

With home automation, the term ‘smart technology’ refers to the concept of artificial intelligence and the way devices are able to connect with each other to communicate. The devices, the shared connections, and communication is the foundation of the Internet of Things (IoT). These physical objects are more than just electronics that use technology, but devices that collect and exchange data in a manner that is meaningful.

Alexa’s purpose is simple: Ask a question, get an answer. Give a command, get results.

With such a simplistic user interface, the popularity of home and office automation with Alexa was bound to explode. What can Alexa do? Using Alexa at home, she can do things like:

  • Stream music
  • Read news headlines
  • Give traffic and weather reports
  • Answer questions
  • Summon an Uber ride
  • And thousands of other add-on skills designed by third-party developers

More offices are embracing Alexa and automation, with seemingly limitless possibilities. The same technology that can deliver news headlines and weather reports is now widely used for reporting and other skills through these add-on skills via Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the Alexa Developer Portal. In fact, with the Alexa Skills Kit, advanced development knowledge isn’t required.

With the ever-expanding world of home and office automation and Alexa’s skills applied for professional purposes, security is becoming an increasingly critical focus. Since Alexa expanded into Australia in early 2018, the Australians seeking skills have seen a boom in availability! Alexa skills are essentially miniature versions of applications – executable files that command the app to do what you want it to do. Just like with any application that runs on a device that is connected to the Internet, cybercriminals target weaknesses for access to information.

What if cybercriminals used Alexa skills to get into your home or office?

Okay, that’s not as likely to happen, but there are other concerns of equal importance. Because IoT devices connect to a network, there are many factors to consider. IoT devices connect to a home or office network through a wireless network connection, routed by a wireless router – which is considered to be the weakest link and greatest target for cybercriminals seeking access via automation technology. While devices and applications regularly receive push notifications of security updates, firmware updates on wireless routers aren’t always automatic and routers are at greater risk of having their firmware rewritten to track Internet behavior – and worse, give unintended access to personal information.

What this means for Australian homes and offices that rely on Alexa and skills is simple: a smart environment’s hacked router can spell catastrophe: every inch of the network is available – and for sale to the highest bidder, or the most sophisticated cybercriminal who understands ‘smart’ technology.

What Are IoT Security Standards?

Australians, proceed with caution: the short answer here is, there are none.

Security settings often rely on manufacturers and providers, who are reluctant to allow these settings to be altered by device users. But since there remains no governing body to oversee and control IoT security standards for devices, there is no easy way to establish security guidelines for smart devices and their connectivity.

What can you do to ensure your network and smart/IoT devices are secure?

  • Check the firmware on your wireless router for available updates.
  • Establish a firewall on your home or office network.
  • Verify that all IoT devices have the most recent software or updates installed.
  • Request a security risk assessment from an experienced and knowledgeable professional.

Security risk assessments evaluate networks from every angle with the most current cybersecurity protocols and determine weaknesses to prevent breaches – before they happen. As a result, customized and detailed security roadmaps are designed to identify ways to protect specific network needs and plan for safeguards.

Can Alexa be hacked? No, but home and office automation does open a network to security risks. Plan a security risk assessment today to be protected!

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Published on 20th November 2018 by Ian Brady.

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