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Internet providers could easily snoop on your smart home
September 5, 2017, 4:47 pm

A new study finds that internet service providers (ISP) have the means to monitor all kinds of things about your personal life from the metadata made available by your smart home.

The study, conducted by research students at Princeton University in the US, shows that an ISP or other network observer can infer privacy sensitive in-home activities by analyzing internet traffic from smart homes containing commercially available Internet of Things (IoT) devices, even if such devices use encryption.

Most IoT devices identify themselves voluntarily, usually by connecting to specific domains or URLs. Even if they did not identify themselves, there were simple ways of profiling them based on observation and some known data, said the research team.

The researchers demonstrated this by showing that various devices show distinct patterns of data transmission: Once they are identified, the ISP can simply watch for increases in traffic. What those changes in traffic mean are either self-evident or perfectly able to be inferred with a little analysis.

For instance, by watching a sleep tracking device, the ISP can see when the user gets in bed and wakes up, perhaps even how well they sleep, whether they get up in the middle of the night and so on.

Similarly, by watching various smart switches, the ISP can see when certain devices are in use: the TV, the air-conditioning, the lights in the house, the garage door.

Also, by monitoring the home security camera traffic, the ISP can see when the camera detects motion, when the user is tuned in to watch their home from afar or when they check archived footage.

The researchers warned that if a handful of academics could monitor and analyze data from smart devices, the ease with which a major ISP could do so is even higher. And, given the recent watering down of privacy protections in the US and elsewhere, an ISP having access to the data they collect could sell it to a third-party without your consent.

However, the researchers also suggested a simple solution to thwart such snooping by ISP; transmit the IoT data through a central hub, such as a router, using custom software that camouflages the data by transmitting a trickle of junk data at all times. Called ‘traffic shaping’, the software does not hamper the functioning of IoT devices, but makes it difficult for a hacker to separate the true signals from junk noise.

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