Cyber safety starts at home

October 24, 2022 E.J. Bernacki
What if you found out the culprit of your stolen password was your robot vacuum? That would suck.

Like many people, I typically try to avoid checking and responding to email when it’s clearly after hours and I don’t expect others to either. But with so many folks working remotely so much of the time, our professional and personal lives—particularly our data networks—are entwined more than they’ve ever been.

And every time a new device is added to a home network, it increases the level of vulnerability.

To complicate things even further, people are adding smart devices with varying levels of security to their home networks all the time—things that may not seem obvious at first. For example, it’s a common courtesy these days to offer visitors in your home your Wi-Fi password. But pause and think about what that really means...your guest has just connected a new device to your network…and exposed all of your family’s networked devices and data to any viruses, malicious software or other vulnerabilities that may be hiding on your guest’s device.

Because of the rapidly increasing amount of smart devices we are bringing into our home, it’s critical we start thinking about them differently and take note on how to protect our most-sensitive information and data.

Schwab’s team of cybersecurity experts recommends focusing on three key areas for securing your home network through solid cyber-hygiene practices:

1. Know what’s on your network

The first step to ensuring good home cyber-hygiene is to know exactly what’s on your network.

Computers, tablets and phones are a great place to start, but don’t forget about other wireless and smart devices such as thermostats, security systems, and voice-enabled speakers. Gaming consoles are also important to include in your inventory, as well as your smart light bulbs and that new garage door opener which, for some reason, asked to connect to your network.

Despite having no kids, my partner and I have a whopping 27 devices connected to our home network! Each one creates risk, which my cybersecurity colleagues refer to as a network’s “attack surface.” The more devices on your network, the bigger your attack surface. 

Chad Williamson, Managing Director, Schwab Cybersecurity Operations, Threat Management and Monitoring says it’s impossible to protect your home network if you don’t know what’s connected to it.

“Take an inventory and know with certainty,” Chad says. “A hacker will look for the easiest path to compromise a target. That default password on the smart refrigerator that you didn’t think to consider in your inventory could be their way into your home network, and ultimately your private and personal information.”

2. Divide your network into zones

When every device is on the same network, your network security is only as strong as your least secure device.

Once you know the devices that are connected to your network, determine which ones demand the highest security (think computers with tax information and other financial records, drives containing family photos and other personal information, etc.) and create a separate zone within your home network to which only these devices connect. Most routers and many broadband modems support the setup of two or more network “zones” that enable different levels of security.

“At a minimum, consider a two-zone approach, with one core zone set to maximum security settings for connecting devices with your most sensitive data,” says Gary Nichols, Cybersecurity Engineering at Schwab. “Devices with less-sensitive information and any guest devices can go on a guest network or other zone.”  

Once you’ve sequestered your most-sensitive devices and components in your most-secure zone, create a guest network for any visitors that might connect to your system so that any vulnerabilities that may result do not impact your critical data. You can also connect TVs, smart speakers, and other devices to this network to further safeguard your most important data and files.

If your router allows you to create more than two networks at home, that’s even better. Gary suggests creating a separate network for devices such as video surveillance systems, thermostats and other devices that feed data to an external source. Gary also recommends keeping kids off the family core network. If your router allows for additional zones, create a separate network for the kids. If not, keep kids’ devices on your home’s guest network.

3. Update passwords, software and firmware regularly

A strong password game is at the core of cyber-hygiene and keeping software and firmware up to date is critically important as well. The challenge here for many of us is actually scheduling and taking the time to check and change passwords and update device security.

“Strong passwords and regular firmware updates are in your control, and they’re the most simple and effective steps you can take to protect your home network” says Scott Smith, Managing Director, Identity and Access Management and Operations at Schwab. “It’s important to check in regularly on password safety, ensure the manufacturer’s latest firmware is installed on each device and that the best available security has been applied.” 

Scott recommends doing a password health check and performing firmware updates at least two times per year to reduce threats. A convenient schedule might be to conduct your cyber check-ups when you change clocks for daylight savings time or the batteries in your smoke alarms. Perhaps you conduct these checks when you break out the patio furniture and again when you return it to storage. The key is to develop a workable system for regular updates and stick to it. 

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for keeping a home network secure. Technology is developing at a breakneck pace, and fraudsters are keeping up by developing increasingly sophisticated scams.

“People will never be able to 100% eliminate threats in their home networks,” said Frank Roppelt, Director of Cyber Risk Insights at Schwab and frequent lecturer on cybersecurity. “But if we focus on securing our devices and home networks, in addition to being wary of social traps like phishing and text scams, we can reduce the risk and potential impact of an attack to a point where it’s manageable.”