When 'Smart Homes' Get Hacked: I Haunted a Complete Stranger's House Via the Internet

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“I can see all of the devices in your home and I think I can control them,” I said to Thomas Hatley, a complete stranger in Oregon who I had rudely awoken with an early phone call on a Thursday morning.

He and his wife were still in bed. Expressing surprise, he asked me to try to turn the master bedroom lights on and off. Sitting in my living room in San Francisco, I flipped the light switch with a click, and resisted the Poltergeist-like temptation to turn the television on as well.

The home automation market was worth $1.5 billion in 2012 according to Reuters; there’s been an explosion in products that promise to make our homes “smarter.” The best known is Nest, a thermostat that monitors inhabitants’ activity, learns their schedules and temperature preferences and heats or cools the house as it deems appropriate. Many of these products have smartphone apps and Web portals that let users operate devices, cameras, and locks from afar. Getting to live the Jetsons’ lifestyle has downsides though; as we bring the things in our homes onto the Internet, we run into the same kind of security concerns we have for any connected device: they could get hacked.

Googling a very simple phrase led me to a list of “smart homes” that had done something rather stupid. The homes all have an automation system from Insteon that allows remote control of their lights, hot tubs, fans, televisions, water pumps, garage doors, cameras, and other devices, so that their owners can turn these things on and off with a smartphone app or via the Web. The dumb thing? Their systems had been made crawl-able by search engines – meaning they show up in search results — and due to Insteon not requiring user names and passwords by default in a now-discontinued product, I was able to click on the links, giving me the ability to turn these people’s homes into haunted houses, energy-consumption nightmares, or even robbery targets. Opening a garage door could make a house ripe for actual physical intrusion.

Thomas Hatley’s home was one of eight that I was able to access. Sensitive information was revealed – not just what appliances and devices people had, but their time zone (along with the closest major city to their home), IP addresses and even the name of a child; apparently, the parents wanted the ability to pull the plug on his television from afar. In at least three cases, there was enough information to link the homes on the Internet to their locations in the real world. The names for most of the systems were generic, but in one of those cases, it included a street address that I was able to track down to a house in Connecticut.

“There’s a password, though,” he said testily. “I want potential customers to be able to see the system to know how it works. You can’t control them, you can just see them.”When I called, a “Craig” picked up the phone. He revealed that he has a side job as a consultant who helps install Insteon devices in people’s homes, and had been using the system himself for 10 years. I told him I could see (and probably control) his network and he became defensive.

I asked him if I could try to turn one of his devices on and off. He told me to turn off the light in the room he was in. After I did it, there was a pregnant pause. “Anything?,” I asked. He responded that nothing happened and rushed off the phone. I suspected he might be lying. The next day, Craig’s system was locked down, accessible only by username and password.

“What I saw concerned me,” he said. “There was no authentication between the handheld and any of the control commands.”The Insteon vulnerability was one of many found in smarthome devices by David Bryan and Daniel Crowley, security researchers at Trustwave. Bryan got one of Insteon’s HUB devices in December, installed the app on his phone, and began monitoring how it worked.

“You could put someone’s electric bill through the roof by turning on a hot tub heater,” says Bryan. He contacted Insteon support by email and asked how to enable a username and password, and Trustwave recently sent the company a full advisory as to its vulnerabilities. The company later fixed the problem with HUB, issuing a recall for the devices in early 2013, though it did not inform customers that the security vulnerability was one of the reasons for that recall.

Insteon chief information officer Mike Nunes says the systems that I’m seeing online are from a product discontinued in the last year. He blamed user error for the appearance in search results, saying the older product was not originally intended for remote access, and to set this up required some savvy on the users’ part. The devices had come with an instruction manual telling users how to put the devices online which strongly advised them to add a username and password to the system. (But, really, who reads instruction manuals closely?

“This would require the user to have chosen to publish a link (IP address) to the Internet AND for them to have not set a username and password,” says Nunes. I told Nunes that requiring a username/password by default is good security-by-design to protect people from making a mistake like this. “It did not require it by default, but it supported it and encouraged it,” he replied.

In Thomas Hatley’s case, he created a website that acted as the gateway for a number of services for his home. There is a password on his website, but you can circumvent that by going straight to the Insteon port, which was not password protected. “I would say that some of the responsibility would be mine, because of how I have my internal router configured,” says Hatley who describes himself as a home automation enthusiast. “But it’s coming from that port, and I didn’t realize that port was accessible from the outside.”

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