The Checkout

Botnets in Your Toaster Oven?

A few weeks back, I speculated that hackers won't be able to resist reaching inside "smart homes" of tomorrow and treating the owners to some tuna aspic just for kicks.

So I was a little alarmed to pick up the New York Times on Sunday and see that security experts are already making ominous noises about just this prospect. (The prospect of hacking into smart homes, that is, not the prospect of eating aspic.)

"It's the next frontier of risk," said Peter G. Neumann, a computer scientist who specializes in security issues at SRI International, a research institute in Menlo Park, Calif. "Here we are putting computer communications into the home so that I can turn on your oven, or overload your heating system -- jack it up to 80 degrees and burn out your oil burner -- from anywhere in the world." And, he added, with unsettling filmic flair, "You could bring down a lot of households simultaneously."

The article went on to say that actual cases have been few and that, at this point, smart home sabotage is merely "a potentially huge problem."

Before you start blaming burned toast on botnets, realize that the most valuable target for hackers--and the most vulnerable--remains your home PC.

According to Michelle Laird, spokeswoman for, smart home devices of today, which allow you to remotely and wirelessly control the temperature, ventilation, lighting and appliances in your home, come with built-in encryption. By remote, in most cases, Laird means the kind you use with a TV. You can also control these functions off-site through a PC.

If anyone wanted to run up your gas bill or flash the lights on and off, you would have to already have remote access set up through a computer or a PDA and the evildoer would have to hack into one of those. That means the main line of defense remains the same. We're dependent on companies such as Microsoft, Norton and Symantec to protect us.

Of course, if anyone is going to hack into your home computer or laptop, they're probably more interested in your Social Security number, checking account information, and passwords than they are about how to leave your iron on.

So at least for now, the bottom line remains the same. Make sure your computer, laptop, PDA, and your wireless network are protected.

Laird also suggests we not get too carried away over hi-tech intruders plotting how to turn off the refrigerator.

"There are a lot simpler ways to break into your home," she said.

Would you feel safe in a smart home?

By Annys Shin |  November 29, 2006; 10:30 AM ET Consumer News
Previous: Rent-A-Center Settles with California | Next: The Latest on Gift Cards


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Ack! No, I couldn't stand the sense of Big Brother that such a wired house would bring. I can't believe people are that harried, that busy, that overcommitted, and that dang lazy that they need a computer programmed house to make their toast, turn on the washing machine and be an overall butler for them. I actually look forward to coming home and taking care of things that are routine chores, since they give me a break from the world of work and they reinforce the idea that I am an independent adult. Emphasis on independent. These smart houses risk making us all dependent on things other than ourselves, which, in my opinion, leads to the risk of losing sight of what really matters in life.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 29, 2006 11:40 AM

Personally I think we have gone to far with computers. They are in every facet of our lives and the "smart house" idea is just another tool to make a lazy, technology depend America, more dependant on something we can not totally control.

Would I feel safe? Only as safe as I make it. Security begins with the person using the technology. Will I use it? No. I'm lazy enough already.

Posted by: Mike | November 29, 2006 11:44 AM

No...for many of the reasons CyanSquirrel has cited, although I can see their benefits for someone who *cannot* do these things due to age or disability. To me it's not even losing sight of what really matters, it's more the idea that we'd be so dependent on technology that if it was ever taken away we'd be in a lot of trouble. Knowing how to wash your clothes, knowing how to work an iron are life skills, that generally require some practice. Will our cars drive themselves next, and 100% of the time enable us to avoid crashes? Will we one day just live in autmoatic bubbles and have our brains rot because as a species we will have no use for them?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 29, 2006 11:48 AM

The 'experts' are grossly ignorant about what drives hackers -- there doesn't have to be a financial gain for the hacker; the challenge and fun of it is the point.

Reaching into someone's home system and wrecking random havoc is exactly the type of thing a real hacker would find irresistible.

Posted by: Burke | November 29, 2006 11:57 AM

This wouldn't be about "breaking into a home" in the burglary sense ... don't think about the financial gain that drives hackers stealing your SSN, think about what drives people to create destructive viruses ... pride? glory? kicks? ... There are a LOT of viruses out there. Bringing down a house or neighborhood would be so much "cooler."
I think there's huge potential here.

Posted by: Burke is right... | November 29, 2006 12:21 PM

perhaps a hacker may be enlisted turn all the house lights *on* to see if anyone is home and then turn them *off* so a burglar could enter?

similar to breaking into a house whose mail and newspapers are piled up out front...

Posted by: Anonymous | November 29, 2006 12:22 PM

The idea of a smart home sounds nice, but with all the struggel to keep your home comuputer safe, I don't think I'll be brave enough to venture into the smart home thing. Although I see how one or two generations from now smart homes would be an everyday thing, just like online shopping today.

Posted by: Elle | November 29, 2006 12:43 PM

This sounds so stupid to me. Who needs a smart phone. They said Identity Thief would not become an issue, it has. You don't need a smart home, you just need to remember to turn the oven off, etc. Sometimes there is such a thing as to much of a good thing. And I work in the technology field and I would not want a smart home.

Posted by: Sara | November 29, 2006 1:36 PM

Ooops...meant smart home, not phone.

Posted by: Sara | November 29, 2006 1:40 PM

Symantec is the company, Norton is a brand of Symantec products.

As for the pride/glory/kicks/"fun" -- those folks are in the minority now. Sure, sure, halcyon days of the 80s when War Games and TRON were cool, and hackers were real men, there were lots like that, then.

Now that there's big money in botnets, spam relay, phishing, etc and non-trivial law changes, those folks are a dying breed. Monied interests of the black market or ethnic-mafioso or state-controlled-espionage types are who is running the show.

Posted by: Companies | November 29, 2006 2:04 PM

Funny how the experts' opinions always seem contradictory to the genuine common sense of the masses.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 29, 2006 2:20 PM

My late grandfather would have a good chuckle. In the early 1970s when I was spending my childhood with him in frigid keypunch and computers rooms, he would often ponder how fascinating it would be to control household appliances with a touch-tone phone. He would then scowl "But you would have to be one lazy bastard to do that!" Well, it's not laziness to want to pre-heat my oven when I leave the office for a ten-minute commute, it's the time crunch of modern life. I've sworn to never walk around like Eight-of-Five with a bluetooth headset and a Crackberry, but a practical timesaver for days when I actually use the oven, not the microwave or drive-thru, could be nice.

Posted by: bigolpoofter | November 29, 2006 2:28 PM

I think those deriding the technology as lazy don't really grasp what a smart home can do.

Is it lazy to hit one button on your way out the door and have all of your lights shut off and the security system arm itself? That seems more efficient to me, and energy conscious.

Is it lazy to receive a message on a cell phone or PC that a security zone at your home has been tripped, or that someone has rung the doorbell? How is it better to wait until you come home and find a smashed window? If you're on vacation and your fridge goes out, would you rather wait until you get back to find out, or receive a text message telling you there's a problem? If you're at the grocery store and can't remember of you need milk - is it lazy to check from your phone, or should you just buy an extra gallon you may not need?

Is it lazy to have your home dial down the heat when you're not there, and warm up only in advance of your arrival?

Headlines like "Botnets in your toaster" speak to a silly interpretation of smart home living, one that fails to live up to the reality. At its essence, a smart home is one that can intelligently react to your presence or absence, to run itself more efficiently, and to alert you to situations or information you may need. Yes - you can hit one button to do what took five light switches in the past, but I hardly think that is going to push us over the edge of lazy.

Think about your car for a moment. You may have a remote control on your keychain that lets you lock and unlock it with a touch. You have individualized climate control, complete surround sound. Your lights will shut themselves off for you. In many ways, it is a completely smart experience - controls and settings tailored to your preferences, always at your fingertips.

So why are our houses so dumb? Why do I have to walk around and manually lock every door every night? Make the rounds to shut off the lights? Manually adjust the temperature only after the house is too cold or too hot? I'd rather my home took care of these things, and let me focus on the things that are most important in my life - playing with my kids, pursuing my passions, dreaming big dreams, swimming with the sharks.

The idea of smart home living is not one of unbridled laziness. It's one of adjusting your home environment to complement the natural rhythm and breath of your lifestyle. It's about living a well-considered life.

Posted by: Pete | November 29, 2006 3:00 PM

Ok maybe lazy was the wrong word. The bigger concern I have is that smart houses take away the spontinaity and inscrutability that makes life an adventure. Having something planned out, always just so, and being bothered by home problems while on vacation just seem to take the guesswork out of life. It makes us God. How are we to evolve as a species to dangers and hazards when they're all carefully screened out of our life by our smart house? I think such safety is called virtual reality, where you become one with the house, *laughs*.

For the record, none of my cars have automatic headlights. One has passive alarms. And I could live without any newfangled stuff on them cuz I take the time to lock my car, and suck up the possible consequences if I'm too much in a hurry and forget. And by not having a single button to control all the lights, I can canvass rooms randomly, turning off lights in a different pattern every night, such that I never forget what the rooms of my house look like for lack of visiting them in favor of the universal remote control.

That's the unpredictability of life I was referring to, something I'm not ready or willing to give up to some computer system. My brain works well enough thank you.

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 29, 2006 3:39 PM

Oh and I have a hard time embracing the concept that a house is anything more than a roof over my head for protection from the elements. If it is supposed to be a surrogate womb, then I missed the train somewhere. I can hear the people of generations past laughing their hind ends off at the thought that a house should mean more and do more than simply be four walls and a roof. While life may not have been all caviar and champage for them, I doubt they'd complain about their lot. Only the upper middle class, merely rich, and superrich have the gall to insist that a house be so much more than a house. Ah...I forget, this ain't Kansas anymore. It's metro DC, where affluenza rules. Even after four years here, I still experience culture shock at the way money and creature comforts seem to be taken for granted around here (i.e. it's never enough.)

Ok rant over. Thanks for seeing things from the proletariat's point of view :-)

Posted by: CyanSquirrel | November 29, 2006 3:49 PM

This whole idea of a smart house reminds me a Simpsons' episode where Marge, Homer and the family moved to a high tech area into a fancy smart house. The house ended up doing everything for Marge (watering the plants, doing the dishes etc.) and she had nothing to do which eventualy drove her to drinking. This honestly makes me laugh, we're getting our technology cues from The Simpsons. (oooohhhh I wonder how long before you can think of doughnut and all of a sudden you have a real dougnut there for you to enjoy?)

Posted by: Melissa | November 29, 2006 3:51 PM

This IS about laziness. If you can't find time for your family because you have to lock a few doors in your house at night manually or you have to wait 5 minutes for you oven to heat up because you have to turn a knob, you have too much time being taken up be other things. And I am willing to bet some of those things could stand to have a few seconds or minutes shaved off of them for other things.

America is lazy, myself included. We want everything done now and on our terms. We are always in a rush. We say we never have time, but if we took the time to manage our time better we would find we have a whole lot of extra time we could be using.

Efficiency is about using time to it's best value. Not about finding other ways or other people or, in this case other things to do your work.

Posted by: Mike | November 29, 2006 4:38 PM

The Simpsons? Terrorists controlling smart homes should be a problem for Jack Bauer on 24!

Posted by: Cosmo | November 29, 2006 6:02 PM

You are not dependent on Microsoft and Symantec.

Try a Mac! you can even try Linux, but the average user should wait a year or so until all the usability problems are ironed out.

Posted by: Interguru | November 29, 2006 7:37 PM

Every smart home will operate differently depending on what the consumer needs. Some will want to access their oven controls, others would be more interested in having the home automatically set-back the thermostat when no occupants are sensed in the home.
For those who have children, I would imagine most would like the home to have the ability to sense that the child's room has been unoccupied for 20 minutes or so and automatically turn off the lights and power down the television that was left on when they left for school.
Energy savings can be taken even further where home appliances communicate with the power company to use less energy during high usage times or take advantage of lower power rates at certain times of the day.
Using smart home technology can make your home more safe and secure. It would be very practical to have the lights in the home automatically come on when the smoke alarms are activated. Many homes already use motion sensors to activate outdoor lights when someone is approaching the home.
Many would find it useful if the ventilation system would detect increased carbon dioxide from the people at your Christmas party and increase the ventilation rate.
SmartHome or home control technology is not an all or nothing proposition. This technology will proliferate by consumers using it for specific applications. It will be customized for each home as they decide how many features fit their lifestyle.
The one sure thing is that it is not about being lazy. It is about not worrying about things that can be taken care of automatically to save money and keep their family safe. It allows the consumer to worry about more important things and spend their valuable time on activities they enjoy.
How many of us remember that having a garage door opener, cruise control or even a timer on the oven would have been considered wasteful technology for lazy people.

Posted by: Thomas Heidel | November 30, 2006 9:14 AM

You bring up some very significant issues that the product visionaries who dream up intelligent refrigerators have blissfully overlooked.

Fortunately there are automated ways of fighting back against electronic fraud. For example, a very useful technique in combating phishing and spam email messages is something called
connection management. Connection management assesses the reputation of email senders and then slows down email coming from unreputable senders.

Posted by: Ken Simpson | November 30, 2006 11:58 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company