Hackers commandeer home appliances

Mike Bacidore says a warning shot has been fired across the bow of the Industrial Internet of Things.

By Mike Bacidore, editor in chief

In late January, I received a disturbing email informing me that my health insurance might not be sufficient to cover medical costs, should I suffer chemical burns in an industrial accident. What? I was so distraught, I nearly clicked on the link to find out how this anonymous sender could help. What was really disturbing about the incident was that I found out the email came from a fish tank in Maryland.

OK, I don’t want to mislead you here. I didn’t receive an email from a fish. We all know that would be preposterous. The email came from the aquarium filter on the fish tank.

As more devices are given digital connectivity, more opportunities present themselves to hackers who can gain access to those devices. Recently, a hack of more than 100,000 home appliances, mostly televisions and at least one refrigerator, was uncovered by a California-based security group. While the devices appeared to be operating normally, they were easily commandeered for service in the spam brigade because owners didn’t set them up properly or didn’t change the default password.

And the ability to seize control of devices isn’t relegated to common home appliances. Last year, word surfaced that an Android app with a hardwired Bluetooth code could force a Satis smart toilet, which costs around $4,000, into a bottomless array of activities. What drives a hacker to such mischief?

lead-Mike-Bacidore.jpgMike Bacidore is chief editor of Plant Services and has been an integral part of the Putman Media editorial team since 2007, when he was managing editor of Control Design magazine. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning a Gold Regional Award and a Silver National Award from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at 630-467-1300 ext. 444 or mbacidore@putman.net or check out his .

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Yes, using a home appliance to send spam seems like a relatively harmless invasion when compared to recent credit-card breaches at big-box retailers. However, think of it as a warning shot fired across the bow of the Internet of Things.

Activating the bidet function on an expensive toilet is funny. Overriding boilers or flow control valves in a chemical plant isn’t.

“The first thing I think of is plant safety,” says Rick Drumm, president of Richard Drumm & Associates, a coaching and consulting firm in Leland, North Carolina. “If the hackers can get into our refrigerators, then it’s not a stretch to think that our plant intelligent environmental control systems are at risk, as well, along with any central control systems that control or monitor automated machinery systems. It should be a high priority to establish numerous internal firewalls to thwart external infiltration as much as possible. Plant managers need to be very proactive in investing in IT protection. One unscrupulous hack into a vital system can be disastrous to the operation.”

The Internet of Things is here. And hackers are armed and dangerous. Precautionary measures are not only advised; they’re required. But don’t panic. Unless your fish start emailing you at work. “Please pick up fish food on your way home. And clean this tank. I can’t see the TV through this filth. I hacked into the television controls through the filter, but what’s the point in being able to change the channel, if I don’t even know what I’m watching?”

Read Mike Bacidore's monthly column, From the Editor.