smart home security starts with a secure router

A novelty a decade ago, the smart home is now mainstream. We have so many devices in our homes clamouring for Wi-Fi connectivity that a whole new standard (Wi-Fi 6) had to be developed to deal with the unprecedented demand. With maturity has come the realization that there are some issues with the smart home. Of particular concern, the popularity of connected devices combined with their level of access to our daily lives has made them a prime target for cyber criminals. Locking them down isn’t easy, especially all the devices that were released when unauthorized access was essentially an afterthought. However, there is hope. Those smart devices are connected to the internet using a router as a doorway. Setting up a secure router can ensure that door is a strong one, able to protect your smart home from attack.

Here are some tips for ensuring your Wi-Fi router is doing its job as the guardian at the gates to your smart home.

The consequences of not having a secure router

Before getting starting with what to do, here’s a little primer on why you should care that your smart home is as secure as possible. Cyber criminals are still getting the hang of just what they can do with a compromised smart device, but the examples we’ve seen to date aren’t pretty. 

smart home security starts with the routerIn 2016, hundreds of thousands of compromised smart devices were combined into a botnet that was able to temporarily knock major services like Netflix and PayPal offline. That’s scary, but a little impersonal. How about the 2018 incident when parents in Texas discovered their smart baby monitor had been hacked, and a stranger’s voice was swearing at them through its speaker? Or the 2019 warning from the FBI that some smart TVs with built-in microphones and cameras are vulnerable to hacking? In 2017, Symantec published a report starting that the average IoT (Internet of Things) device was attacked once every two minutes. That was three years ago … 

Many smart devices employ cameras and microphones. Others are now in control of critical home functions such as your furnace and air conditioner. 

Are you uncomfortable with the idea that someone could gain access to those devices? Of course you are! Now it’s time to do something about it.

Change the default ID and password

Tips don’t get more basic than this one, but enough people skip over it that it’s still worth mentioning: change the default user ID and password for your router. Some routers force you to do this, but not all do. And the first thing a potential hacker is going to do is to try the default credentials to gain access to your smart home.

Make sure that password is a strong one. Ideally, a random mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols.

Don’t forget your ISP’s gateway. Many people use their own Wi-Fi router, but it’s still connected to that gateway. Make certain its default user ID and password have also been changed.

Don’t include the router’s name in your Wi-Fi network name

When you install a new router, it usually identifies itself by the manufacturer name by default. So your new Wi-Fi network will be called “Linksys” or “Netgear.” Change that to something more generic, otherwise you’re giving potential hackers a valuable clue about what kind of router hardware they’re dealing with.smart home security starts with the router

While you’re at it, try to avoid a network name that identifies you or your home.

A secure router has strong encryption and the firewall is on

When you set up your router, one of the choices you have is whether to encrypt your traffic or not. Obviously, you should choose encryption—otherwise you leave your data unprotected. But it’s also important to make sure you use strong encryption. WEP was the default for decades, but it’s too easy to break nowadays. WPA, WPA2, or better yet WPA 3, is the encryption you should be using.

Most routers have built-in firewall capability, but it may be turned off by default. Activating the firewall offers additional protection against intrusion. However, gamers may have to then use the router admin software to open ports in order to play online.

smart home security starts with the routerEnable auto updates for your router

Just like a PC, your router is running an operating system. And just like a PC, manufacturers occasionally release updates. These may be performance improvements, but may also include bug fixes and patches for security vulnerabilities. Whatever the reason for a firmware upgrade, you don’t want to miss it. 

Most router software gives you the option of enabling auto-updates and doing so ensures your router is always at its best.

Use a guest Wi-Fi network

Your router comes with the option of creating a guest network. You should enable it. That way, visitors can connect to the guest Wi-Fi network, and they won’t have access to your primary network. You may not worry about them trying to hack your smart devices. But if their smartphone or laptop is connected to your primary Wi-Fi network and the device happens to be compromised, then the hackers now have access to your network and those smart home devices as well …

smart home security starts with the routerSuspicious? Scan for devices on your network

Most router software comes with a feature that maps your Wi-Fi network, showing every device that’s connected—and boot them off, if you need to. If you’re ever suspicious that someone is connected to your network who shouldn’t be, this is a quick and easy way to find out. It’s also a great wake-up call for the number of connected smart devices on your network.

What to do next

By all means, if your connected devices support more secure access such as two-factor authentication, enable it. But take the time to make certain your router is configured to maximize protection at the point of internet access—this is the key to strengthening security for the entire network. 

smart home security starts with the router

While you’re thinking about the subject, now might be the time to consider an investment in security software to further protect your family when using devices such as PCs, smartphones and tablets. And if your current Wi-Fi router is struggling under the demands of your smart home, now would be a great time for an upgrade to a Wi-Fi 6 router and/or a whole home mesh Wi-Fi system. Many mesh Wi-Fi systems not only automatically optimize traffic in the background, they also automate security through methods like automatic updates and employment of firewalls.  

Do you have any tips for increased smart home security? If so, be sure to share them your fellow readers by leaving a comment.

Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.

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