Coming Soon: The Cybercrime of Things

Once everything in your house contains a computer, everything in your house can be hacked.
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Smart lamps let your friends--and anyone who can hack into them--know when you're home. (Good Night Lamp)

Recent work by security researchers indicates that one of the problems with having a "smart" home is that some day, it might be smart enough to attack you. The essence of the forthcoming "internet of things" is that everything we own, from our refrigerators and egg cartons to our cars and thermostats, will some day be outfitted with internet-connected sensors and control systems, allowing all our possessions, and ultimately all of our civic infrastructure, to communicate with each other and be controlled remotely.

The potential security implications of this future are fairly obvious: Imagine if the same hackers that are stealing our credit card numbers suddenly had the ability to take over or at least monitor just about every device in reach. But to date, thinking through the specifics has been tricky. Here, then, is a handy guide to the basic vulnerabilities we'll be adding to our lives once we have connected all of our worldly goods to the internet of things:

Direct attacks that force objects to exceed their design parameters or operate in ways that are unpleasant or dangerous

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If you'd like your home to be as vulnerable to cyberattack as Iran's nuclear enrichment program, go ahead, by a smart fridge. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

The most successful cyber-attack on physical infrastructure ever--an attack on Iran's uranium enrichment facility, suspected to be a join US-Israeli project, that set Iran's nuclear ambitions back by at least a year--illustrates a basic principle of internet-connected devices: Having the ability to control them remotely could mean giving hackers the ability to damage them remotely, or re-purpose them for nefarious uses.

In the Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear program, software was used to spin uranium centrifuges at a speed and duration that physically damaged these delicate instruments, requiring what was probably months of subsequent repair. Similarly, at this year's Defcon conference for hackers, security company Cimation demonstrated an attack that could damage a water treatment facility--causing a pipe to burst or a tank to overflow--or any other plant that uses a common protocol for controlling infrastructure that was invented in the 1970s.

Granted, our homes do not include uranium centrifuges or plumbing we control remotely--yet. An attack on the Inax Satis smart toilet would allow a hacker to activate this $4,000 toilet's bidet remotely.

Misdirection leading to user error and damage

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Smart thermostats can be controlled from the internet, the most insecure communications network ever invented. (Nest)

As with the internet itself, we will in time become ever more reliant on the internet of things. Baby and pet monitors, home automation systems and even our cars will send us information in ways that will make our lives easier but also encourage our dependence on these systems. In this way, hackers do not even need to figure out how to harm us or damage our connected devices to cause mayhem: They simply need to send us false readings from the sensor systems we're using.

Presented by

Christopher Mims is the science and technology correspondent for Quartz. His work has appeared in Wired and Scientific American, as well as on the BBC.

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