Computer hackers, also known as cybercriminals, are infiltrating our world with ever-increasing sophistication. In October 2016, hackers disrupted service to Twitter, Netflix and other major websites. And just last month, another group compromised the online data of thousands of people and businesses — including hospitals and other emergency services.
Despite the increasing prevalence of these breaches, we still tend to disregard cybersecurity as something for someone else to worry about. But in just a few years, experts predict the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) will comprise 20 to 50 billion gadgets. This web of interconnected devices will reach everywhere — both in and out of school — leaving students’ and teachers’ personal data vulnerable to hackers.
It is critical that students understand both the benefits and risks of these devices — not to mention their smartphones. Educators have an important role to play in helping students understand and safely navigate an internet-connected world.
Explaining the Risks of IoT Devices
Amazon’s Echo uses smart technology to respond to the sound of a user’s voice. Google Home can easily play our favorite tunes. But how? It’s not magic. These devices — as well as internet-connected refrigerators, security cameras, baby monitors, coffee machines and more — add convenience to our lives. But kids must understand and take seriously how hackers can use these devices to access data.
In the cyberattack last October, hackers took down a large swath of the internet by first gaining access to tens of thousands of personal devices such as video cameras and DVRs. Pieces of these devices were all made by a single company that used simple passwords like “password” or “123456789” for all of its products. Once the hackers could access one device, it was easy to access them all.
These security vulnerabilities put the public’s privacy at risk. Recently, hackers took control of smartphones through a surprising IoT appliance — a slow cooker. That meant pictures, texts and emails were visible to the hackers and vulnerable to theft. In other instances, cybercriminals stole 2 million message recordings from an IoT teddy bear. Researchers discovered that an IoT Barbie could be turned into a spy device. Even internet-connected medical devices are theoretically at risk.
Here’s an easy way to explain IoT hacks to students:
A hacker accesses a device, like a webcam, through its internet connection. Devices with weak security or easy-to-guess passwords make easy targets.
The hacker can then infect the device with malware, a type of computer virus that takes control of a device.
The hacker now has a number of options. He or she can use the device to spy, infect other devices or attack a target like the servers (centralized computers that store network data) targeted in the October 2016 attack.
If a device is capable of connecting to the internet, it’s vulnerable to cyberattack. It’s important for kids to take extra care when using any IoT device that records voice or video, uses personal information, or relies on location-tracking to work.