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Connected 'things' on the Internet can provide information about their users

MONTREAL - As objects like TVs and alarm systems continue to get connected to the Internet, more money and personal information are potentially out there for hackers to exploit and companies to profit from, experts say.

The growing network of connected objects is referred to as the "Internet of Things" and it's estimated there will be billions of web-enabled devices by 2020, such as fridges and other appliances, wristwatches, thermostats, weight scales, and so on.

Software security companies have started to see threats to connected security cameras, Internet routers and even baby monitors, said Kevin Haley, a director with Symantec's security response team in Culver City, Calif.

Unlike for computers and mobile phones, there's no anti-virus software to prevent hacking on those devices.

"Will someday, somebody attack your refrigerator, or your television set, or your scale?" asked Haley. "Today, there's not a lot of benefit to that. They're probably not going to attack until they can figure out a way to make money."

But Haley said information can be collected about individuals and businesses from their connected "things."

"What is happening to this data? Is it secure?"

For example, smart TV makers could potentially sell information to advertisers about what consumers are watching, he said. Would health information be sold based on data gathered from a connected scale, about a person's weight or how much she exercises? Could hackers exploit this information?

"If that data is running around the Internet because it's easier to access and use, it almost always means that it's easier for others to access. What are the repercussions of that?" Haley said.

Internet equipment maker Cisco has estimated that there will be 50 billion "things" connected to the Internet by 2020.

For businesses, intellectual property could be at stake.

Hacked security cameras can give criminals or competitors access to how products are made, said Haley.

He said when he talks to business people about this he can "see their jaws drop."

"It's not a PC so you never thought you had to worry about it and now you do."

Last year, a Texas couple reported that their daughter's connected baby monitor had been hacked and the hacker took control of the camera, spying on the child and saying sexually explicit things.

Home routers that get computers and other devices on the Internet can be a weak spot for hacking. Consumers should change the default password on their routers to make them more secure, said Haley.

It's up to consumers to be proactive and check manufacturers' websites for any vulnerabilities with connected objects, at this point, he added.

But Queen's University Prof. David Skillicorn said consumers often choose convenience over security when it comes to embracing technology.

"So there isn't going to be a huge amount of push back from consumers," said Skillicorn, who teaches in the university's school of computing in Kingston, Ont.

"I think at the moment that people dive in thinking, 'Wow, that's cool,' without stopping to think about what else is going on here."

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