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3 Things Utilities Should Tell Customers About Smart Home Cybersecurity

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Smart home technology can make life easier for utility customers. Smart meters can help them manage their energy use, smart thermostats can help them regulate heating and cooling, and smart sensors can help them operate solar and battery sources. As much as utilities are in a position to help both residential and business customers to minimize their energy spending through use of these devices, they also have some responsibility for making sure those customers use smart home technology safely. That means alerting them to the cybersecurity risks and helping them mitigate those dangers. The following statements provide a good starting point for utility communication to customers about staying safe in smart homes (and offices).

Hackers can and do break into data networks through smart devices.

Less attention has been given to the cybersecurity of Internet of Things (IoT) devices — of which smart home devices are a subset — than to the cybersecurity of computers and handhelds. The reason is that manufacturers often want to push their products into the market while demand is high and don’t take the time to thoroughly develop or test their offerings.

As a result, hackers can and do gain access to Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and other types of data networks through refrigerators, home assistants, printers, and security systems, just to name a few. This access can grant them personal information about the occupants, knowledge of when occupants are away from the premises, and the ability to use onsite computers in cyberattacks.

Like computers, smart devices can be secured.

The good news is, there are many steps smart device owners can do to protect themselves from this type of intrusion. The World Economic Forum states, “If you want to profit from the advantages of smart living, you have to start to treat your property like a computer…. Users should not buy the cheapest devices, and should demand proper maintenance.”

Be smart about your smart home.

Smart home devices may seem like fun toys to bring home and play with, but both business and residential utility customers should take the purchase and use of these devices seriously. A New York Times article notes, “Experts caution consumers to research carefully and move diligently when adding smart devices to their home network.... [Installing smart devices requires] patience and diligent research in navigating through a costly, cumbersome and often time-consuming process.” The article recommends Samsung, “Philips Hue for lights, Nest and Ecobee for thermostats, Ring for doorbells, and WeMo for light switches and plugs.”

Once installed, users should secure each device with strong passwords and two-factor authentication if available. Smart home (or office) users should regularly check each manufacturer’s site for patches or firmware updates. Users can also disconnect devices from the network when they’re not in use.

Additionally, one of the most effective things smart home users can do to stay secure is strengthen the Wi-Fi network devices are connected to. Specifically, users should change the factory default password to a strong password, and use two-factor authentication if available.

As smart home technology evolves, no doubt manufacturers will find ways to make it less susceptible to cyberattacks. However, hackers will no doubt look for ways to override those improvements. At a time when utilities are facing greater competition, building and maintaining trust with customers is one way to keep them, and helping them manage their smart home devices — including, but not limited to those that help them manage their energy use — is one good way to earn it.

Does your utility have a smart home program? How do you communicate with customers about smart home cybersecurity? Please share in the comments.

Karen Marcus's picture

Thank Karen for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 6, 2019 9:24 am GMT

Very important issues-- I'd note that having utilities even address any perceived threats, even if they aren't completely tangible yet, is important. The security issues like these that potential customers might hear about on the news are enough for some of them to throw their devices in the garbage and never look back, but if the public can be educated about how to best set the devices up in an energy-addressing way while protecting their cyber security then a lot of progress can be made. 

Karen Marcus's picture
Karen Marcus on May 6, 2019 8:33 pm GMT

Great point, Matt. If utilities communicate early and often, customers might feel less afraid of devices that can actually do more good than harm. 

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