Jun 03, 2014

    Connected homes open to 'digital hijacking'

    HOME, connected home. The front door opens with a tap on an iPhone. The lights come up as if by magic.

    You will probably be hearing a lot about these sorts of conveniences this week from the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

    Apple is expected to unveil software that promises to turn our homes into Wi-Fi-connected wonderlands, all controlled via an iPhone or iPad. You can bet that refrigerators will soon come with "Made for iPhone" stickers.

    These initiatives are all part of what is known as the Internet of Things. That is a catchall term used to describe connectivity - specifically, how people connect with products, and how products connect with each other.

    Sounds great. But I can't shake the feeling that one day, maybe, just maybe, my entire apartment is going to get hacked.

    Hackers can crack governments and corporations, so what is to stop them from hacking a connected house? "Obviously, there are lots of benefits of connected devices in the home, but there can also be complications," said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre, a non-profit research and advocacy group.

    "When you worry about computer viruses, you can unplug your computer. When your house gets a virus, where do you go to hide?"

    Take an incident that happened last week in Australia. Reports popped up on Apple forums and in the media that some people with iOS devices, including iPhones, iPads and Mac computers, had been targeted in a "digital hijacking" operation.

    Hackers had commandeered the machines and rendered them unusable. A hacker going by the name "Oleg Pliss" demanded a US$100 (S$126) ransom, paid via PayPal, to unlock each one.

    Now imagine what could happen to your house. You come home to unlock your front door or turn on your lights with your smartphone - and find your home held hostage.

    Another troubling aspect is the privacy implications. The companies that are actually making these technologies could become flies on our walls. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission late last year, Google said it foresaw a future of ads in cars, watches, glasses, thermostats and so on.

    Google has backtracked since, saying last week: "We've contacted the SEC to clarify our 2013 filing; it does not reflect Google's product road map."

    But, as privacy experts noted, someone, somewhere, inside Google has been thinking about putting ads in your home.

    "These are devices that are designed to track people," said Mr Rotenberg. "You might start to wonder, why is my toaster spying on me?"