Smart homes cause security concerns nationwide

WALDORF, Md. (WJLA) - Waldorf resident Lena Bell's new house isn't just a home - it's a smart home.

With the tap of a finger, she can control lights, thermostats and even her door locks.

"It's very cool," Bell said. "It just makes security a lot easier."

However, as a security consultant, Bell also knows that her home could be a potential magnet for hackers. In the smart home market - a burgeoning, $1.5-billion industry, tech experts worry that the home break-in is evolving into the home "hack-in."

"When you find out there are actually people out there that are focused on breaking that level of security, it makes you feel very uncomfortable," Bell said.

Tom Bridge, a D.C.-area tech expert, says that hackers can do such simple tasks as changing your thermostat, or they can do much worse.

"It's like they're controlling your house like you would be," Bridge said. "They're turning up the temperature, turning down the temperature, unlocking your door, looking at your video camera systems."

It happened to Marc Gilbert at his Houston-area home. Hearing a voice from his young daughter's bedroom, he found out that someone had hacked into his router and nanny cam.

The virtual intruder was cursing and shouting before Gilbert halted the connection.

"I'm supposed to protect her from people like this," Gilbert says. "It's a little embarrassing to say the least. But it's not going to happen again."

Gilbert is, by far, not alone. Forbes reporter Kashmir hill says that during research for an article about hackers, she was able to gain access to eight different smart homes across the United States.

"All I had to do was type a very simple phrase into a search engine, and then it gave me a list of houses that are using this product," Hill said.

One of those houses belonged to Thomas Hatley, whose Oregon home had its lights shut off in various rooms. Each of those homes all used the same device, now discontinued, that wasn't password protected.

"It confirmed that there was a way into my house that I hadn't been aware of," he said.

In September, the Federal Trade Commission investigated and settled with a company that installed home surveillance cameras considered vulnerable. Industry watchers say that it's a message to the industry to make their products more secure.

"It seems like the state of software security in Smart Home devices is pretty bad," says Trustwave security researcher Daniel Crowley.

Experts say that smart home users should avoid factory default passwords and choose good, complex and unique codes. They should also be changed every six months.

"Good strong passwords, good strong account credentials, and make sure those are things you don't share with anybody," Bridge says.

Meanwhile, in Waldorf, Lena Bell knows its time to upgrade her settings.

"Whenever something is invented," Bell says, "You're always going to have someone who's going to try to challenge it and break it."