Could the Next Big Cyber War Be Launched With an Army of Smart Fridges?

Techy's dream kitchen of the future comes with a big security catch.

(Illustration: CSA/Getty Images; design: Lauren Wade)

Jan 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One technophile’s dream kitchen is another’s security nightmare.

Hot on the heels of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—which featured a beyond–The Jetsons glimpse of the kitchen of the (not-so-distant) future—and Google's $3.2 billion purchase of Nest, the maker of smart gadgets, comes news that all is not rosy in the “Internet of things.”

Namely, all that so-called “smart” gear isn’t so smart when it comes to resisting the nefarious designs of hackers. Could your coveted smart fridge become an agent of tech doom?

While some of us may still be trying to outwit the auto-correct on our smartphones, the tech revolution keeps marching on. A recent New York Times article pointed to Google’s acquisition of Nest earlier this month as evidence, in the words of one tech executive, “that the Internet of Things is not a passing fad.”

Nest is the maker of that way-cool-even-if-you’re-not-a-tech-geek home thermostat, which enables you to, among other things, control your HVAC from a smartphone. With tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs having achieved widespread use (if you’ve ever received a text from one of your grandparents, you know what I’m talking about), the next big tech frontier seems to be to insert a little Wi-Fi-connected semiconductor brain in just about everything else we use—including our kitchen appliances.

While Quirky’s “smart egg tray,” the Egg Minder, may generally be treated as a joke—do you really need push notifications to tell you you’re almost out of eggs, or that an egg has gone bad? I mean, when was the last time you cracked open a rotten egg?—some of the smart kitchen gear demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show a couple weeks ago is undeniably awesome...unless you’re the sort of person who becomes exasperated with your ever-chiming iPhone, berating it as if it’s a nagging old spouse.

To wit, the Smart Grill from Lynx: “Through an app and voice recognition, the grill can be preheated for whatever you may be preparing,” reports the Kitchn. “The grill sends you text messages when it is time to turn food, and recipes can be tuned and saved so you get the perfect doneness every time.”

And though you might wonder why on earth you would ever need to adjust your refrigerator’s temperature from your iPhone, it’s hard to deny the gee-whiz factor of Whirlpool’s new interactive cooktop, which not only allows you to set your pans to simmer just about anywhere on its glowing surface, the smart stove detecting their size and weight and heating them accordingly, but also functions as a kind of mega-tablet, giving you access to your favorite Internet recipes and, say, YouTube dog videos to entertain yourself while you’re waiting for that pot to boil.

Yet while most of us may be prone to considering these things as benign as C-3PO or Rosie, the Jetsons' robot maid, it appears there’s a shadowy tech underworld out there determined to harness all that smart gear into a zombie army of “bots” ready to engage in global cyber warfare on behalf of the hackers controlling them.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, the problem is that much of the new Internet-connected tech gear, as cool as it may be, either lacks some of the basic security features found on your average laptop—or unwitting users fail to take the most elementary security precautions (like changing the preset password on their home router).

“Proofpoint, a digital security firm, discovered a global cyber attack that involved a refrigerator, among other ‘smart’ household objects,” the Times reports. “The hack involved sending more than 750,000 malicious emails to businesses and individuals around the world. This type of cyber attack is referred to as a botnet attack, which involves a collection of computers located in peoples’ homes or businesses. Any thermostat, door lock, or fridge that connects to the Internet could be used in the hack.”

See, that kind of dampens the enthusiasm to, say, set your dishwasher to start while you’re grabbing your morning coffee at the Starbucks drive-through.