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Are you managing your smart home technology or is it managing you?

Using an app for security, lighting and entertainment can feel simple, but you need to understand how to protect your privacy and secure your personal information. (Brandon Thibodeaux for The Washington Post)
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“Lights, camera, action” isn’t heard just on movie sets these days. You’re just as likely to say it in your own home when you operate your smart home devices.

Although using an app for security, lighting and entertainment can feel simple, you need to understand how to protect your privacy and secure your personal information in this new age of high life at home. We sought advice from two experts: Hank Schless, senior manager of security solutions at Lookout, a mobile security provider; and Scott McKinley, assistant vice president of Pocket Geek Home. Both replied via email, and their responses were edited.

How do you know if you have the bandwidth in your home to handle more smart home-tech gadgets?

Schless: Many Internet service providers have apps that help you understand how much data and bandwidth your connected devices are using. The providers will also note how many devices each of their plans can support.

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McKinley: Depending on the number of smart home tech devices you have in your home, and the type of techie you are, you may have different needs. A basic rule of thumb is that if you are a casual user (you use a streaming service to watch TV, you have one or two smart devices, etc.) then you should aim for about 20 to 50 mbps [megabits per second] speeds. If you have several TVs streaming 4k at the same time, various smart home devices and a gamer or two in the house, then you should aim for speeds of 100 mbps or more. Don’t forget, just because you have speed, doesn’t mean you have coverage. You need to make sure you perform a speed test from various points of your home to determine your coverage.

If coverage is poor in areas where you want to put a device, you may want to consider:

· Centralizing your router. You may pay for great speeds coming into your home, but if your router is located in a decentralized corner of your house, you are severely limiting its coverage. Wi-Fi signals don’t travel well through dense objects like concrete, metal and wood. The more walls your signal must move through, the more strength it loses. Just a simple move of the router to another location can solve many signal strength and coverage issues.

· Upgrading your router to a mesh system. Mesh routers provide a great option for extending your coverage for those who have big gaps where their Wi-Fi signal just won’t reach. They provide a consistent speed since they work together to extend your coverage.

· Upgrading to a Wi-Fi 6 router. Wi-Fi 6 is a relatively new technology that is faster and can handle more devices (or streams) simultaneously. This gives it an advantage, but it’s a single router so it needs to be centralized in your home to be effective. If you have a central location in your home that you can move your router to, a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade may be the best choice for you due to its ability to process several instructions simultaneously.

When you add devices, are you more vulnerable to someone getting your personal information?

Schless: More devices inevitably mean more places where some part of your personal data is stored. Since attacks on consumer hardware like connected home technology typically take place at the network level, the number of devices may not affect your actual vulnerability level.

However, you have to take into account the risk of the device manufacturer being attacked. Nowadays, you almost always have to enter some personal information in order to activate a new device, which means the manufacturer possesses that data. If their corporate infrastructure is breached, there’s a risk that your data could be exposed.

How do you protect privacy when you’re using smart home tech?

Schless: Protecting your personal privacy with smart home tech is important to think about. The general best practice is to enable the minimum amount of data access and permissions. With smart home tech, there’s usually a minimum necessity for things like location data, microphone access and connected accounts in order for the technology to work. Depending on your personal risk tolerance and how you want to balance increased functionality with less privacy, you may choose to enable additional home tech features at the expense of a little more personal data.

What do you do when something goes wrong with a smart home gadget?

Schless: If something seems like it’s not functioning correctly, the best thing to do is call the manufacturer and see if they can help you fix it. However, if you feel the device has been hacked or someone else is controlling it, you should first turn it off and unplug it from its power source.

McKinley: Reboot! Sometimes the quickest resolution is to unplug the device, then unplug your Wi-Fi router, then power them back on after about 30 seconds and see if the issue resolves itself. Nine times out of 10, a simple reboot fixes the issue. If this doesn’t solve your issue, then the next step really depends on your situation and device. If you’re a Pocket Geek Home customer, use the mobile app for access to connected home device experts and self-help content for the most common connected home devices if you prefer to DIY. You can also Google the problem and see what others have done to resolve it. If that doesn’t help, then your next option is to contact the manufacturer and hope they can help. However, today’s smart home devices are interacting with other devices. Many manufacturers have great support for their devices, but if the issue extends beyond their device, then they may provide limited or no support.

What’s the best way to keep up with software updates on your devices?

Schless: It’s critically important to make sure that any device you have that’s connected to the Internet is running on the latest software updates. Most devices will notify you when it’s time to update but you should check every couple of weeks. Most updates these days have to do with security, so if you’re not on the latest version then you could be vulnerable to cyberattacks. The most evident example of this is our smartphones and tablets, which seem to always be asking us to update. This isn’t without reason, and you should always be running a security app like Lookout Mobile Security on your mobile devices. This will ensure that you’re protected from malicious network connections, phishing attacks and advanced device compromise attacks.

McKinley: Most smart home devices on the market today are powered by an accompanying mobile app. You should make sure those apps are always up to date by installing the latest app updates (or setting your phone to automatically update your apps). Once the app is up to date, you should have access to the latest features. Some devices like Sonos, for example, rely on the app to push updates to the physical devices. In those cases, when you launch the latest app, it will remind you that a device update is available. When you see those messages, you should always take the time to allow those updates to take place to ensure you don’t have any usability problems.