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Why "smart" is dumb

There are more computer processors in the world today than people. An inescapable fact, given that computers have increasingly been integrated into more and more devices and products, even on tiny levels. But what are the downsides? Well, mainly, security. Anything that's connected to the internet is a potential hacker target. In 2015 security researchers demonstrated the ability to hack into an internet-connected Chrystler vehicle while it was driving, taking over the aircon, entertainment system and shutting down the engine. Unfortunately this sort of vulnerability is far from uncommon. Similar weaknesses have been found for many "smart" devices, including internet-connected digital video recorders, fridges and printers.

Now, your common operating systems such as Windows, Mac OSX or Android are patched fairly effectively and regularly, with new vulnerabilities being (largely) stamped out before there is time for hackers to act on them. But in terms of consumer items like digital video recorders, because of the low cost and market competition associated with them these systems rarely get patched. And even if they are, once the system has been on the market for 2-3 years there's no incentive for the manufacturer to keep on supporting and patching it.

You might think that, well, I don't care if my DVR gets hacked - there's nothing important on there that I care about. But anything you buy which is internet-connected, which isn't a 'real' computer (ie. a desktop, smartphone, tablet, laptop etc), is also something that can potentially be used as an entry point into your home network, and subsequently into other, more important devices in your house. These entry points include internet-connected lightbulbs (those ones which change colour when you talk to Amazon's 'Alexa' or another home-control device), printers and the like.

Speaking of which, in 2017 someone hacked into 150000 printers around the world and got them to print rude messages and gibberish. That might sound funny, but at a large enough scale, the economic and environmental costs are significant. So, what to do? We can't all get scared and stop using the internet forever (although that is certainly an option). A better approach is to limit what has access to the internet. If it doesn't need it, disconnect it. If you can connect your printer via a USB cable rather than Wifi, do that. Buy cars and other devices which aren't internet-connected, when you are able.

Anything that's still being actively patched, such as a Tesla car or something you browse the internet on, needs to be connected to the internet in case major flaws are discovered and require a fix. But as a general rule the cost of having non-computer devices connected to the internet usually outweighs the benefit. And for your actual computing devices? If you're still using old, outdated, unpatched and vulnerable systems like Windows XP and Windows 7, please update to more recent ones which still receive the necessary security updates to stay safe online.

- Matt Bentley, computer expert at Bentley Home PC Support.
Email info@homepcsupport.co.nz or phone 0211348576.

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