What is a Botnet? And What Does It Have to Do with Protecting “Smart Home” Devices?

The pop-up toaster as we know it first hit the shelves in 1926, under the brand name “Toastmaster.” With a familiar springy *pop*, it has ejected toast just the way we like it for nearly a century. Given that its design was so simple and effective, it’s remained largely unchanged. Until now. Thanks to the internet and so called “smart home” devices. 

Toasters, among other things, are all getting connected. And have been for a few years now, to the point where the number of connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices reaches well into the billions worldwide—which includes smart home devices.  

Businesses use IoT devices to track shipments and various aspects of their supply chain. Cities use them to manage traffic flow and monitor energy use. (Does your home have a smart electric meter?) And for people like us, we use them to play music on smart speakers, see who’s at the front door with smart doorbells, and order groceries from an LCD screen on our smart refrigerators—just to name a few ways we have welcomed IoT smart home devices into our households.  

In the U.S. alone, smart home devices make up a $30-plus billion marketplace per year. However, it’s still a relatively young marketplace. And with that comes several security issues.  

IoT security issues and big-time botnet attacks 

First and foremost, many of these devices still lack sophisticated security measures, which makes them easy pickings for cybercriminals. Why would a cybercriminal target that smart lightbulb in your living room reading lamp? Networks are only as secure as their least secure device. Thus, if a cybercriminal can compromise that smart lightbulb, it can potentially give them access to the entire home network it is on—along with all the other devices and data on it. 

These devices make desirable targets for another reason. They can easily get conscripted into botnets, networks of hijacked computers and devices used to amplify Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that organize the devices into an attacking host that can flood a target with so much traffic that it cannot operate. DDoS attacks can shut down websites, disrupt service and even choke traffic across broad swathes of the internet.  

Remember the “Mirai” botnet attack of 2016, where hackers targeted a major provider of internet infrastructure? It ended up crippling traffic in concentrated areas across the U.S., including the northeast, Great Lakes, south-central, and western regions. Millions of internet users were affected, people, businesses, and government workers alike.  

Another headline-maker was the Amazon Web Services (AWS) attack in 2020. AWS provides cloud computing services to millions of businesses and organizations, large and small. Those customers saw slowdowns and disruptions for three days, which in turn slowed down and disrupted the people and services that wanted to connect with them.  

The Mirai and AWS stand out as two of the highest-profile DDoS attacks, yet smaller botnet attacks abound, ones that don’t make headlines. Still, they can disrupt the operations of websites, public infrastructure, and businesses, not to mention the well-being of people who rely the internet. 

Botnet attacks: Security shortcomings in IoT and smart home devices 

How do cybercriminals harness these devices for attacks? Well, as the case with many early IoT devices, the fault lies within the weak default passwords that many manufacturers employ when they sell these devices. These passwords include everything from “admin123” to the product’s name. The practice is so common that they get posted in bulk on hacking websites, making it easy for cybercriminals to simply look up the type of device they want to attack. 

Complicating security yet further is the fact that some IoT and smart home device manufacturers introduce flaws in their design, protocols, and code that make them susceptible to attack. The thought gets yet more unsettling when you consider that some of the flaws were found in things like smart door locks. 

The ease in which IoT devices can be compromised is a big problem. The solution, however, starts with manufacturers that develop IoT devices with security in mind. Everything in these devices will need to be deployed with the ability to accept security updates and embed strong security solutions from the get-go. 

Until industry standards get established to ensure such basic security, a portion of securing your IoT and smart home devices falls on us, as people and consumers. 

Steps for a more secure network and smart devices 

As for security, you can take steps that can help keep you safer. Broadly speaking, they involve two things: protecting your devices and protecting the network they’re on. These security measures will look familiar, as they follow many of the same measures you can take to protect your computers, tablets, and phones. 

Grab online protection for your smartphone. 

Many smart home devices use a smartphone as a sort of remote control, not to mention as a place for gathering, storing, and sharing data. So whether you’re an Android owner or iOS owner, use online protection software on your phone to help keep it safe from compromise and attack.  

Don’t use the default—Set a strong, unique password. 

One issue with many IoT devices is that they often come with a default username and password. This could mean that your device and thousands of others just like it all share the same credentials, which makes it painfully easy for a hacker to gain access to them because those default usernames and passwords are often published online. When you purchase any IoT device, set a fresh password using a strong method of password creation, such as ours. Likewise, create an entirely new username for additional protection as well. 

Use multi-factor authentication. 

Online banks, shops, and other services commonly offer multi-factor authentication to help protect your accounts—with the typical combination of your username, password, and a security code sent to another device you own (often a mobile phone). If your IoT device supports multi-factor authentication, consider using it there too. It throws a big barrier in the way hackers who simply try and force their way into your device with a password/username combination. 

Secure your internet router too. 

Another device that needs good password protection is your internet router. Make sure you use a strong and unique password there as well to help prevent hackers from breaking into your home network. Also consider changing the name of your home network so that it doesn’t personally identify you. Fun alternatives to using your name or address include everything from movie lines like “May the Wi-Fi be with you” to old sitcom references like “Central Perk.” Also check that your router is using an encryption method, like WPA2 or the newer WPA3, which will keep your signal secure. 

Upgrade to a newer internet router. 

Older routers may have outdated security measures, which may make them more prone to attack. If you’re renting yours from your internet provider, contact them for an upgrade. If you’re using your own, visit a reputable news or review site such as Consumer Reports for a list of the best routers that combine speed, capacity, and security. 

Update your apps and devices regularly. 

In addition to fixing the odd bug or adding the occasional new feature, updates often address security gaps. Out-of-date apps and devices may have flaws that hackers can exploit, so regular updating is a must from a security standpoint. If you can set your smart home apps and devices to receive automatic updates, even better. 

Set up a guest network specifically for your IoT devices. 

Just as you can offer your guests secure access that’s separate from your own devices, creating an additional network on your router allows you to keep your computers and smartphones separate from IoT devices. This way, if an IoT device is compromised, a hacker will still have difficulty accessing your other devices on your primary network, the one where you connect your computers and smartphones. 

Shop smart. 

Read trusted reviews and look up the manufacturer’s track record online. Have their devices been compromised in the past? Do they provide regular updates for their devices to ensure ongoing security? What kind of security features do they offer? And privacy features too? Resources like Consumer Reports can provide extensive and unbiased information that can help you make a sound purchasing decision. 

Don’t let botnets burn your toast 

As more and more connected devices make their way into our homes, the need to ensure that they’re secure only increases. More devices mean more potential avenues of attack, and your home networks is only as secure as the least secure device that’s on it. 

While standards put forward by industry groups such as UL and Matter have started to take root, a good portion of keeping IoT and smart home devices secure falls on us as consumers. Taking the steps above can help prevent your connected toaster from playing its part in a botnet army attack—and it can also protect your network and your home from getting hacked. 

It’s no surprise that IoT and smart home devices are raking in billions of dollars of years. They introduce conveniences and little touches into our homes that make life more comfortable and enjoyable. However, they’re still connected devices. And like anything that’s connected, they must get protected. 

Introducing McAfee+

Identity theft protection and privacy for your digital life

FacebookLinkedInTwitterEmailCopy Link

Stay Updated

Follow us to stay updated on all things McAfee and on top of the latest consumer and mobile security threats.


More from Internet Security

Back to top