Once firmly in the realm of science fiction, IoT-equipped smart homes are now a mainstay of modern convenience. However, the multitude of Internet connected devices has opened up fresh attack vectors for hackers, leading many to search for home cybersecurity solutions. Today, we’ll teach you about why VPNs are essential for smart homes, plus help you pick the best provider.
In the past decade or so, the internet has gone from a informational convenience to in indispensable tool that shapes virtually every aspect of our daily lives. And its next stop is our homes, as the Internet of Things (IoT) revolutionizes the way we do just about everything. Smart homes are truly the wave of the future.
If you are unfamiliar with ‘IoT’, the term refers to the huge range of internet-connected devices and gadgets we can buy which help us to do every possible kind of daily task. And the term ‘Smart Home’ refers to the IoT devices we use in our home. These days, almost every conceivable device can be connected to the internet. This brings huge possibilities, but also huge risks too. It is vital that we take steps to protect ourselves from these risks which is why, as we shall explain, smart homes need a VPN.
What is a Smart Home?
A smart home makes use of internet-connected devices to help us manage every aspect of our living. These devices, which are frequently given the umbrella term ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), are modern versions of everyday items that are now connected to the internet. As a result, many can be managed remotely often using apps on your smartphone or programmed to perform tasks automatically.
Many newly built properties these days claim to be smart homes. They might include things like automated lights and an inbuilt sound system. There could well be an app to help you manage your heating or air conditioning remotely (so you can be sure that your house is at the right temperature when you get home from work), as well as helping you to be more energy efficient. But even older properties are moving in this direction. When you buy a new boiler, for example, it is likely to be connected to the internet. And even items as mundane as your refrigerator or your coffee machine can be internet-enabled. Smart homes are coming whether we like it or not, which is why we all need to be prepared.
What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?
The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a term used to describe an interconnected network of everyday devices designed to make our home lives easier. Slowly but surely, IoT devices have moved into the mainstream.
Most gadgets and appliances that you buy for your home these days will be connected to the internet. For some, there are clear benefits for the user. Being able to remotely manage your home security system, alarms, and CCTV cameras is clearly very useful. Equally, being able to control things like lights and heating systems means you don’t have to worry about your house when you go on holiday. The days of leaving the radio on to make people think there was someone at home are very much in the past. Nowadays you can turn on the lights as usual in the evening from anywhere in the world. By the same token, you can save on your electric bill by programming your home to power down its devices when you’re not at home.
But even smaller gadgets are being connected to the internet these days too. If you buy a smart coffee machine, you can program it to remember how you like your coffee, and to serve as your digital barista by automatically making a cup when you get up each morning. It can even send you a notification when its ready to drink. Your robot hoover can vacuum your house while you are out. Your Smart TV can record programmes for you automatically, notify you when shows you like are on, and even change channels automatically to ensure you catch the ten o’clock news each night. When the IoT first came into the public consciousness, it was billed as something which would revolutionise our lives. And little-by-little, it is doing just that.
Why Smart Homes need a VPN
The proliferation of IoT devices and the rise of smart homes can make many everyday tasks much easier and this is all thanks to being connected to the internet. But their greatest asset also brings with it their biggest risk. Because the grim reality is that the internet is not a safe place. While many internet users are well intentioned, there are no shortage of hackers out there who are looking to steal or con their way to a fast buck at the expense of less-savvy internet users than themselves.
Equally governments of all countries, whether authoritarian regimes or fully-fledged western democracies, have seen the internet as an opportunity to monitor their citizens. As a result, the use of IoT devices comes with considerable security and privacy risks, which we have outlined below.
It might seem a bit far-fetched to think that hackers might want to break into your coffee machine. But when you consider that items such as your house alarm and your car are all connected to the same network, the possibilities for hackers become more clear. There have already been countless cases of car thieves successfully stealing cars by hacking into their onboard computer systems. Equally, many houses fitted with the latest security systems have also fallen prey to the same style of attack. Hacking into a relatively small device can enable access to everything you do online in the home too. This means online banking, shopping habits, and other sensitive information could potentially fall into the hands of someone who has managed to hack into your smart doorbell.
As well as the risks of losing online bank details to hackers, there are more specific privacy risks related to IoT devices too. As they extend into every aspect of our lives, it is possible to use the data they collect to paint a very detailed and accurate portrait of our lives. It is quite conceivable to use data from IoT devices to work out when people are in and out of the house, what they are doing while they are at home, and even where they go when they are outside. People’s home are supposed to be a sanctuary where they can relax and do what they want in private. An unsecured IoT network puts this at risk by essentially placing surveillance equipment in every room in the house.
Besides potentially harvesting data about every aspect of our lives, some IoT devices can carry even more obvious privacy risks. If you have CCTV cameras inside or outside your house, these can be hacked to literally watch what you are doing. There have also been several cases of baby monitors being compromised and hackers being able to watch and even interact with children in their bedrooms. And it is well known that accessing the webcams that are built into all smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers is pretty easy these days.
Plus, there is the latest trend for personal assistant devices such as Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s HomePod, and Google’s Home. By placing these devices all over our homes, we are putting active cameras and microphones into every room and trusting that they are only operating when we switch them on. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests they are not and that we are in fact helping big tech companies, governments and hackers to surveil us even as we sleep.
The folly of trust
By snapping up these IoT devices and turning our homes into smart homes, we are placing a great deal of trust in the manufacturers of these devices. But why should we do that? User data is a valuable commodity for big business these days and many IoT manufacturers see their devices as an easy way to gather such information. Plenty will either sell this information to third parties or otherwise use it elsewhere in their business to promote their own products and services to you. By buying their product, you are likely to have already consent to allow them to do this in the terms and conditions small print. And by not taking steps to secure your own devices, you are offering carte blanche to not only the manufacturers, but anyone who can compromise their device, to breach your own online security and privacy too.
Why aren’t IoT-enabled devices secure?
Some IoT devices do come with inbuilt security features. This is especially true of larger items such as home alarms and CCTV systems. But these systems are rarely flawless and so sophisticated are modern hackers these days that few can withstand a sustained attack for long. Many smaller IoT enabled devices do not even try to be secure, and can be easily compromised by even the most novice of hackers.
There are a number of reasons why this is the case. The biggest one is probably cost. In its early days, IoT-enabled devices were expensive and as a result didn’t sell in big numbers. Manufacturers realized that to make IoT devices commercially successful they had to be priced at the same level people were used to paying for such items. As a result, security features tended to be jettisoned to keep prices down. Size is also a factor. Many IoT-enabled devices are extremely small and adding security would make them noticeably bigger. As a result, security is no longer seen as a priority by the manufacturers of IoT-enabled devices and their users are the ones that suffer the consequences of this.
How to keep to your smart home safe
With the risks of being connected to the internet as great as ever and IoT device manufacturers abdicating their security responsibilities, the onus falls instead on users to ensure that their smart home is secure and their family’s privacy is protected. This is no great break with tradition. Users of computers and smartphones are well used to having to invest in security software to protect themselves. But with IoT devices lacking that same level of user interface it is often not immediately clear how you can protect them.
The answer is simple. The best tool to keep your IoT devices and Smart Home safe and secure is a VPN. However, to protect everything, you will need to install your VPN not on your computer or smartphone, but directly onto your Wi-Fi router. A VPN works by encrypting all of your online data and then passing it through an external server to anonymise it before that data heads off to its intended destination.
By installing a VPN onto a router, you are ensuring that your entire Wi-Fi network is protected. This means that any device that connects to your Wi-Fi is automatically protected by your VPNs encryption and all its data is passed through the VPNs external server. As IoT devices all have to be connected to your Wi-Fi connection in order to work properly, this applies to them too and means that everything in your Smart Home can be protected with a VPN.
Best VPNs to secure your Smart Home
There are no shortage of different VPN providers on the market at the moment and all are well aware of the vulnerability of smart homes and the potential their products have to perform a vital service for users of IoT-enabled devices. Nevertheless, some providers are still better suited to the job than others. When choosing the Best VPN to secure your Smart Phone, it is sensible to consider the following criteria:
- Router compatibility – For a VPN to protect a Smart Home, it must be capable of being installed on a router. Most VPNs these days are, but there are still a few that are not. Equally, some also offer better guidance on router installation than others.
- Encryption strength and security – the purpose of using a VPN to protect a Smart home is Security, so users want to find a VPN with the best possible encryption.
- Effective privacy policies – There is no point keeping your IoT data private if your VPN provider is then going to leak it, so finding a VPN with reliable privacy protections is a must.
- Fast connection speeds – Some VPNs can slow internet connection speeds down and with multiple devices connected to your router this could have a big impact on your home Wi-Fi. So, it is important to choose a VPN with the fastest possible connection speeds.
- No usage restrictions – Some VPNs, especially free ones, can restrict the amount of bandwidth you can use each month. This is no good for Smart Home owners, so it is vital that your chosen provider has no such restrictions.
On the basis of these four core criteria and our extensive testing of almost all the major VPN providers on the market today, we are recommending the following three VPNs as our top providers to keep your Smart Home secure.
No VPN is faster than ExpressVPN, but that’s not the only reason you should consider this provider for your smart home. Balanced with incredible performance is incredible protection, underpinned by 256-bit AES CBC encryption with 4096-bit RSA key exchange. It would take a supercomputer with only theoretically possible levels of processing power to crack this by brute force, since there are more key combinations than atoms in the known universe.
Not good enough for your home? Consider ExpressVPN’s DNS leak protection and automatic kill switch, which constantly stand guard to keep intruders out of your network in case your VPN falters even for a moment. What’s more, ExpressVPN’s robust server network is both massive (3,000+ nodes across 94 countries) and stable. Even their apps are streamlined and solid, and won’t let you don’t when you need them. Finally, there’s a comprehensive no-logging guarantee, so you can be sure ExpressVPN can never expose your personal data, even if they themselves are hacked.
Read our full ExpressVPN review.
- Works with US Netflix, iPlayer, Hulu and other services
- Super fast servers (minimal speed loss)
- Torrenting allowed
- No logs for personal data
- Live chat support available.
- Expensive month-to-month plan.
NordVPN is the cheapest of the three VPN providers we recommend for smart home owners, but it packs a ton of utility into its lightweight pricing. For starters, NordVPN’s AES-256-GCM encryption with a 2048-bit DH key exchange is virtually impenetrable, and is used by the NSA to encode its top-secret messages. There’s also a host of addition security features unique to NordVPN, including multi-hop encryption, onion over VPN, anti-DDoS, and more. In case your connection drops out, you can rest easier knowing there’s an automatic kill switch to prevent hackers from having even a moment of vulnerability to take advantage of.
NordVPN is based off-shore in Panama, which means their no logs guarantee is totally watertight. While connection speeds were once an issue for this venerable VPN, they’ve worked hard to expand and improve their network, which now covers more than 5,400 servers in 59 countries and offers blazing fast speeds. With no restrictions on bandwidth, and great guidance for use on routers available, NordVPN are another provider which offer a compelling service package for smart home owners.
Read our full NordVPN review.
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- Over 5,400 servers in 61 countries
- Strong encryption is used on all connections
- “Double” data protection
- 24/7 Live Chat.
- Some servers can be unreliable
- Apps can be a bit cumbersome to use.
IPVanish is another well-established VPN and while its connection speeds are far from sluggish, it is their security provisions which really make them stand out from the pack. IPVanish employs 256-bit encryption across both L2TP and OpenVPN protocols. Network uptime and stability is great as well, with 1,300+ nodes spanning 60+ countries worldwide. Backing this is an automatic kill switch, which shuts down your Internet connection in the even that your VPN times out, even for a second. This is perfect for guarding your smart home network at all times.
IPVanish also comes with a cast-iron guarantee that no user data will be collected, while there are also no usage restrictions whatsoever. Their subscription prices come in a little cheaper than ExpressVPN’s too. And given the level of service they provide, IPVanish offers superb value for money.
Read our full IPVanish review.
How to install a VPN on a Wi-Fi router
Every VPN is different, so how to install your VPN onto your router may depend on which provider you have subscribed to. All should provide their own specific guidance as to how to do this. But, in general, the process is broadly similar. We have outlined the general process below, but it is worth seeking out your own providers guidance, either on their website or via their customer support service, before beginning.
You will of course need to ensure that you have a router which is able to support a VPN client. The easiest way to do this is to buy a router which already has this capacity. There are growing number of routers from all the major manufacturers which tick this box and this is certainly the approach we would recommend. The other two ways to install a VPN onto a router involve either flashing a custom firmware onto an existing device to add the capability or buying a router which has already been pre-flashed. Both are technically tricky and can be more prone to errors. So, the best bet is to buy a router which proudly states that it offers ‘VPN Client’ or ‘VPN Client Mode’ on its box.
Once you have purchased such a router, all you need to do is follow this simple process:
- Subscribe to your chosen VPN provider. To do this, you will need to head over to their website using the links on this page and then choose the subscription package that best suits your needs. Follow the onscreen payment instructions and once that has been processed, you are all set.
- On your computer, log into your VPN account and seek out the option for Manual Config. You will need to look for the details for the PPTP and L2TP-IPSec protocols. This should give you a list of server address around the world. Keep this tab open.
- You will now need to access your router’s Control Panel and login using your administrator’s password. Every router does this differently, but its instructions or the manufacturers online support should be able to tell you how.
- Once you have logged in, click on Settings followed by
- Now configure your Internet connection to L2TP (which is more secure than PPTP) by inputting the information from the Manual Config page you opened in step 2.
- Once you have done this, click save, and after a few moments, your router should now be connected to your VPN of choice and all of your internet-connected devices will be protected.
Smart homes and the Internet of Things are not just visions for the future, they are already an integral part of our modern lifestyles. And this is only going to increase as the technology develops. Whether we like it or not, Smart Homes are here to stay, and it is vital that we take the necessary steps to protect our security and privacy while using them. The best way to do this is by using a VPN, such as the ones we have recommended in this article, to protect all of the data being communicated by our IoT devices.
A VPN is not a foolproof solution to all of the risks associated with Smart Homes and the IoT. But it does ensure that all of the data their devices are transmitting is encrypted and secure. And it also ensures that any data that is intercepted cannot be directly traced back to your physical location. By using a VPN, the threat posed by hackers and government surveillance officers to IoT devices is significantly diminished and that is a really great start to ensuring that your Smart Home is secure.
What is your experience of IoT devices and new Smart Home technology. Have you suffered any security or privacy breaches as a result of having these devices in your home? Do you use a VPN installed on your router to keep these devices secured? How did you find the installation process for doing this and do you feel safer as a result? We are always interested to hear your thoughts and opinions, so why not share them with us using the comment box below.
If you need a VPN for a short while when traveling for example, you can get our top ranked VPN free of charge. ExpressVPN includes a 30-day money-back guarantee. You will need to pay for the subscription, that’s a fact, but it allows full access for 30 days and then you cancel for a full refund. Their no-questions-asked cancellation policy lives up to its name.