Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Someone's watching the baby, and it isn't you

"A greyscale image of a webcam," by Asim Saleen, used under license CC BY-SA 3.0

It seems like a scene out of a Transformers movie, but it happened right here in Austin. Local news station KVUE reports that an Austin family noticed their Wi-Fi baby monitor moving on its own one evening last week. It was being controlled by an unknown person, for an unknown purpose.

I hesitated to write this story, since I do not have a Wi-Fi camera to test myself and provide recommendations on. The intent of Security for Real People is not to spread fear, but to give practical advice you can use to keep yourself and your family safe online.

I decided to share the story anyway, for this reason: Internet-connected devices are becoming more and more common, and entering more and more intimate areas of our lives. But in many cases online safety is an afterthought. With a refrigerator or TV, maybe that's not a big deal, but a camera inside the home lends itself to voyeuristic abuse or worse.

The camera in this case could be controlled and monitored from a smartphone. Many such cameras also allow two-way communication: from the smartphone you can both hear and see what the camera is monitoring, as well as talk back to whomever is in front of the camera.

A similar story came out of Houston last month: a family was horrified to find that a webcam in their daughters' bedroom had been taken over, and was streaming live video of the girls' activities for all the world to watch.

Earlier this year, another Houston family had the fright of a lifetime: while the nanny was changing their baby, she heard a voice from the webcam start talking, commenting on the dirty diaper.

Security standards for the so-called "Internet of Things" are still developing. Connectedness brings a lot of convenience, but at the present time the industry is still too immature for me personally to trust an Internet-connected camera with my family's private life.

What you should do:

  • Webcams are great for communicating with distant friends and family - but unplug them, or cover the camera lens, when not in use. Even FBI director James Comey does this.
  • Change the passwords for any devices you connect. If the device has separate passwords for administering and for viewing or accessing remotely, change both passwords.
  • Check for updates to the software or firmware on the device, as well as for updates to mobile apps associated with the device. Manufacturers will sometimes release updates to fix security risks.

For more tips - explained in easy-to-follow terms, visit Cyber Tips for Digital Citizens

Do you have something to add? A question you'd like answered? Think I'm out of my mind? Join the conversation below, reach out by email at david (at), or hit me up on Twitter at @dnlongen