Security Smart Home

Your Smart Home Works for the NSA, and You’re Being Watched

Christian Cawley 14-02-2016

Ever get that feeling you’re being watched? The Internet of Things is making surveillance even simpler for security services, to such an extent that Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, has declared that smart meters, cameras, and other IoT devices are being co-opted to listen into conversations and generally keep an eye on you.


Yes, law abiding citizen: YOU.


It seems that the worst fears about the Internet of Things The Internet of Things: How It'll Change Your Life Next Year Internet of Things has undergone its own Cambrian Explosion, and it promises to make your life much more convenient in the years to come. Here's why. Read More and smart home technology are being realized. Like the stuff of Hollywood movies, any connected hardware can be hacked and its data used to draw a picture of what you’re up to. This might be anything from listening to conversations to getting an idea of how much coffee you drink.

The Golden Age of Surveillance

The FBI has claimed in recent years that it is “going dark” – spy language for losing the ability to spy on targets thanks to encryption. While the steps of Apple and other device manufacturers to avoid privacy-based lawsuits by giving users encrypted-by-default hardware is a good thing, the truth about going dark is quite the opposite.

And don’t just take our word for it: a study released in early 2016 and commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation, was developed with the help of civil libertarians, counterterrorism analysts and technical experts.


The study (Don’t Panic: Making Progress on the ‘Going Dark’ Debate) at Harvard’s Berkman Center, concludes that

“‘Going dark’ does not aptly describe the long-term landscape for government surveillance…”

Put simply, the intelligence service knowingly uses the term despite a wide variety of new avenues to surveil targets (domestic or international, innocent or criminal), and cites a range of products, some of which you might expect, others which are a little more surprising.

“…toasters to bedsheets, light bulbs, cameras, toothbrushes, door locks, cars, watches and other wearables.”

In short, everything around you that uses an Internet connection can be co-opted and used to either directly observe your behavior or record it in another way for later analysis.

Scary, isn’t it?


How These Devices Monitor You

Did you know that when you bought the various smart home solutions you’re currently enjoying, that you would be welcoming the intelligence gathering services into your lives with open arms?

In 2015, the UK’s Guardian newspaper asked if the IoT was “the greatest mass surveillance infrastructure ever?” In the same article it cited Philip N Howard’s “Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up” who suggests that our continued connectivity via every device in our homes, will lead to “a new political age…. ‘Pac Technica.'”

The inference here is that in place of traditional governments of democracy and dictatorship, “data-driven socio-technocracies” will rise,


“…built on the intensive reporting of our behaviours, habits, tastes and beliefs, seamlessly transmitted by the devices we use, carry and interact with.”

But how will this be achieved? How does an Internet of Things toaster, for instance, surveil you?


There’s no reason to be so doubtful. For instance, telephone providers can detect when you’re home by the way you make or answer calls; electric companies can determine your whereabouts in a similar way. Indeed, with the use of smart meters, your electricity provider can tell what devices are being used. This is pretty much the case across the board with IoT smart home devices. Usage paints a picture, while hardware with a built-in mic or camera – such as Smart TVs Your Smart TV is Watching You - and It's Not the Only One! Are Vizio smart TVs capturing information about you and transmitting it back to Vizio without telling you about it? And if so, is this something you should be worried about? Read More or games consoles – are ready to record your activity.

Even when you’re aware of the risks of the more obvious surveillance options, we have the weak points, connected smart devices in your home that can be used to gain access to other devices.


If They Breach Your Privacy, Criminals Can Too

As demonstrated at the Black Hat conference in 2014, a Google Nest thermostat can be hacked and turned into a “smart spy” – in just 15 seconds. While the device was secure when shipped, and the hack requires physical access, the speed with which the hack can be applied makes these merely minor barriers to success.

But of course, you don’t want to be surveilled by anyone, do you? Because once one party is keeping an eye on you, it makes it so much easier for another to learn about your movements. We’ve already had situations with Internet connected security cameras being subverted by criminals 5 Dangers to Consider When Pointing Your Home Security Cameras It is important to carefully consider where you position your cameras, and what parts of your home you point them at. Keeping things secure is important, but so is maintaining your privacy. Read More . We know that one of the major barriers to security services being given backdoors to encrypted systems is the threat to industrial secrets – and even the economy – should these backdoors be discovered by hackers.

And this is the real threat with any connected hardware, not just the Internet of Things. Hackers remain ready and willing to gain whatever information they can, and use it for profit. This might mean anything from selling your personal data Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web It's uncomfortable to think of yourself as a commodity, but all of your personal details, from name and address to bank account details, are worth something to online criminals. How much are you worth? Read More and medical data Medical ID Theft: How Scammers Use Records To Steal Your Identity Read More to stealing data and holding it to ransom.


If the NSA can do it, so can criminals.

What Can You Do?

Want to avoid this sort of surveillance? You have two options.

The first is the simplest. Reject the smart home and the Internet of Things (we’ve already established that it can be quite a security nightmare 7 Reasons Why The Internet of Things Should Scare You The potential benefits of the Internet of Things grow bright, while the dangers are cast into the quiet shadows. It's time to draw attention to these dangers with seven terrifying promises of the IoT. Read More ). While they might make things easier on a superficial level, in reality, smart home technology is just saving a bit of time. Is that saving worth risking your privacy over? I doubt you think so.

Second, you might want to retain your smart home hardware, but keep better control over it. The way to do this is to implement your own smart home hardware. Here at MakeUseOf we’ve looked at various custom smart home and home automation solutions, such as those managed by the Raspberry Pi Getting Started with OpenHAB Home Automation on Raspberry Pi OpenHAB is a mature, open source home automation platform that runs on a variety of hardware and is protocol agnostic, meaning it can connect to nearly any home automation hardware on the market today. Read More . If you want to move forward with smart home technology, maintaining your own systems and ensuring the necessary firewalls and other security is implemented, is the safest option.

Do you have a smart home? How concerned are you by the testimony of director of national intelligence, James Clapper? Tell us in the comments.

Image Credits: Gage via Wikipedia, Carsten Reisinger via, scyther5 via

Related topics: Internet of Things, Online Privacy, Online Security, Surveillance.

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  1. Eddie G.
    February 17, 2016 at 5:12 am

    I for one do NOT subscribe to the "Smart" anything else. I'M the smartest thing in my home!...LoL! I'm not so lazy as to need a computer to tell me when to go get more milk from the store, nor do I need a device telling me that there's a light bulb out on the back deck. I think humanity has gotten so reliant on technology that they've lost sight of the big picture the original big idea, which was for technology to help humans live their lives, not to CONTROL heir lives. I do not need anything in my home cxonnected to The Internet Of Things. because I don't want IoT in my house. I will continue to use my laptop and desktops (running Linux of course!) and will continue to use my "two generations ago' Samsung "smart" phone, but as for the "smart' toaster? cooler?....ironing board?....washing machine? No. Not interested, and if ever it becomes an issue where it's insisted that I get these devices?....well I'll just move to Canada!...Hahaha!

  2. John
    February 15, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    ROFLMAO the biggest laugh of all is that the author failed to point out that "Makeuseof" is helping Facebook, Google, LinkedIn & everybody else in the world track you and make you public. Submit any of the posters' photos to Google image search including mine. (Surprised Google missed my FB page but with the name & photo it & everything else about me is easy to find.)
    A big "Who Cares?" for me but usually a focused Google search will find your addresses where you have lived , land line phone numbers and list of friends & relatives and a lot of other stuff from public records. The world is out to get you and you are all victims of the information age. ;-) ;-) ;-)

  3. John
    February 15, 2016 at 12:09 pm

    Ha ha ha bunch of nobodies who want to think they are so important the government will spy on them. The "USA PATRIOT Act" which makes this legal was passed in 2001 because citizens complained that the government had not prevented 9-11. " Ask & ye shall receive." The courts have verified the legality & not once since the start has even one innocent citizen had a problem.

  4. nobody
    February 15, 2016 at 9:25 am

    This is illegal for the government to be doing, so actually what needs to happen is a gigantic lawsuit holding them accountable for their crap. Or we need to strengthen the laws.
    I'd recommend making your own hardware anyway with raspb pi or arduino. Better to know what is actually making up the parts of whatever you have. I don't even like purchasing any electronics anymore because even the non-"smart" stuff could be used to invade your privacy easily. I shouldn't have to even explain how. We need to put companies & the government in their places & make it no longer possible for them to legally get away with this shit.

  5. Anonymous
    February 14, 2016 at 7:52 pm


  6. Anonymous
    February 14, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    "You have two options."

    Well, actually you have several more, one of which is to be more vociferous in your support of the Second Amendment.

    • Anonymous
      February 15, 2016 at 2:21 pm

      Indeed you are right! As I've heard in the past, the second amendment protects the first amendment. You can't have one without the other. There are many people these days who will tell you that the constitution is old and outdated and needs to be changed and we don't have a right to bear arms anymore. You can't be in support of some parts of the constitution and not the other parts, that's not how this country works! In fact, the supreme court recently upheld this amendment with the interpretation found here.

      • Mark
        February 17, 2016 at 1:04 am

        But, though I don't currently, I NEED my right to collect and own bear arms! I have no idea what use I might have for a bunch of bear arms...but still....'Mericua! Now, arming bears is another thing...though, being here longer than humans, they should have that right as well.

  7. Anonymous
    February 14, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    The hell with a tin foil hat. I need to wrap my entire house in tin foil! :-)

    MUO is very much complicit in this mad rush to IoT by publishing articles that push the concept by making it sound like The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. The implication in the articles is that if one is not for IoT then one is a Luddite and so last millennium. I am NOT saying that these articles should not be published. What I would like to see is each article contain a warning that IoT can be dangerous to one's security and privacy. Similar to warnings on cigarette packs.

    "If the NSA can do it, so can criminals."
    Do you consider the various private companies, such as Google, Microsoft, etc. that gather data on us, as criminals?

    "You have two options."
    Actually, there is a third option. A home can be automated without being "smart" and/or using WiFi. But then, without WiFi the smartphone cannot be used to control the house. Oh, SNAP!