2015 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 1

Smart Security for Smart Technology

By Allison Mills

The technology of the future is here—but is it safe? Professor and cyber-security expert Shiyan Hu tells us how to be security savvy in a technology-smart world.

The technology of the Jetsons is here. Smartphones are just the beginning: Already, a number of "Smart Home" appliances are available. That's right, your thermostat, fridge, and washing machine could be as much of a smarty-pants as your tablet.

But with that convenience comes increased security risks.

Water and electricity can by cheaper at different times of the day. Your smart dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer figure out the best time and run a load so you get the best bang for your buck.
Water and electricity can by cheaper at different times of the day. Your smart dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer figure out the best time and run a load so you get the best bang for your buck.

Shiyan Hu is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and he studies cyber-security. Every digital link between smart appliances and you, Hu says, is a pathway for hackers to take over your house, maybe even your community. And as all aspects of life become more digitally connected, we increase the risk of serious hacking threats.

"We cannot have perfect security for smart devices," Hu says. "But we can make improvements."

So, how can you increase your own cyber-security? Hu has several recommendations.

Top Troublemakers

Ooh! A brand-new pony, I'd buy that!

You found the perfect set of glow-in-the-dark My Little Pony figurines—score! But before you click to submit that payment, think before you buy. Hu says online buying is one of the most common security issues.

Imagine not having to get up in the middle of the night to check the Thanksgiving turkey, but checking your phone instead.
The traditional Thanksgiving slow-roasted turkey just got even better. Imagine not having to get up in the middle of the night, but just rolling over and checking your phone instead. And you'll never burn the cookies again while watching reruns of "Desperate Housewives."

Some tips to keep your data secure:

  • Avoid open networks.
    More-secure networks require signing in with a passcode.
  • Use websites that encrypt your information.
    Scrambled data is harder to break into—look for a little padlock up by the URL address.
  • Watch out for auto bill pay.
    Especially with smart appliances, unnoticed energy spikes get swept under the rug if you don't monitor your accounts.

Hmmm, I wonder where that link goes.

That email from Aunt Betsy? No, she really isn't in London and she doesn't need you to send over a thousand quid. If you have any doubt about the validity of a link, email, or Facebook message, check it out:

  • Hover over the link.
    Does it match where it says it goes?
  • Ask where it came from.
    Call Aunt Betsy—"You went to London and didn't tell me?"
  • Report it.
    Especially for work accounts, companies have a way for you to let IT and others know about potential hacks.

Dang! What was my password again?

Don't use your favorite cereal and birth year for every single password. While you may remember cornflakes1970, it's crummy security. So is repeating a single password or writing down multiples. "And there are so many passwords to remember!" Hu exclaims. "If it's simple, it's easy to guess, but if it's complex it's hard to remember." Try this for balance:

Smart thermostats can learn your routine to better meet your heating and cooling needs.
A programmable thermostat is so 2005. Smart thermostats aren't just a wifi upgrade; they're the heart of a customizable smart home. The key is sensing technology that turns on when you're home and rests while you're out of range. Some smart thermostats even learn your routine to better meet your heating and cooling needs. Eventually, these little gadgets will run all your other smart appliances.

  • Use the first letter of each word in the opening line of a song you know.
    ittrl1970 is the opening of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody".
  • Choose a couple of capital letters.
    IttRL1970
  • Avoid strings of numbers.
    19IttRL70
  • Mix in some punctuation.
    19IttRL.70 — now that's a safe password, and you can probably remember it.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.