The problem with putting Wi-Fi everywhere

From fridges to washing machines, everything will soon be connected to the internet

Smart home, smart fridge, CES,

Image: John Herrington, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics America, unveils new refrigerators with Family Hub 2.0 during a Samsung news conference before CES International, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Las Vegas. Family Hub 2.0 features an interface on the refrigerator with apps that can be controlled by voice recognition. (AP Photo/John Locher)

At CES 2017 in Las Vegas last week, there were a lot of big flashy announcements.

An electric car that can outpace a Tesla in ludicrous mode, a TV so thin it looks like wallpaper, a USB stick that holds 2TBs of data or a three-screen laptop.

But one announcement, by South Korean company LG, went under the radar somewhat. During its CES press conference on Wednesday, the company basically said that from now on, everything you buy from LG will be Wi-Fi connected.

LG marketing vice president David VanderWaal said that “starting this year” all LG's home appliances will feature “advanced Wi-Fi connectivity.” Think about that for a moment, and then think about the range of appliances LG makes for the home — fridges, ovens, washing machines, dishwashers, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, and more.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, given the surge of interest in the internet of things and the desire for manufacturers to make everything from the light bulb in your living room to the kettle in your home “smart”.

And sure, having Wi-Fi connectivity on a dishwasher can have its benefits. Who doesn’t want to be out for dinner and get that reassuring notification from LG456FGT76 telling you that the economy cycle has finished safely.

Image: Artistic Advisor and renowned designer Nate Berkus demonstrates the new LG STUDIO InstaView Refrigerator in a black stainless steel finish. A sleek glass panel on the right door illuminates with two quick knocks revealing the contents inside. (Roberto Gonzalez/AP Images for LG)

LG is not alone in trying to make all things smart at CES. There was also the smart hair brush (or the Kerastase Hair Coach Powered by Withings to give it its proper title) which connects to your smartphone and costs $200.

There are of course some genuinely useful reasons for connecting traditionally “dumb” home appliances to the internet. Smart thermostats which not only offer flexibility but save you money are a perfect example, as is a video door bell, which allows you see what’s happening at your house even when you are not at home.

The problem is that, while companies like LG will sell you the promise of a connected lifestyle, what it won’t tell you about is the risk you are opening yourself and your family up to by putting Wi-Fi in all your home appliances.

Last year, we saw the power these devices can have if they are compromised and fall into the hands of hackers. The Mirai botnet was used to fire a huge DDoS attack at domain name system (DNS) provider Dyn. The attack knocked hundreds of websites like Twitter and Netflix offline for millions of users on the eastern seaboard of the US.

The attack was not sophisticated, and compromising millions of these connected devices was not difficult. By adding Wi-Fi to everything, we are simply widening the attack surface these hackers can hit, without doing a single thing to stop them.

Because consumers are yet to really demand the same level of security from the manufacturer of their fridges as they do from the maker of their smartphone or laptop, companies are simply not going to invest in beefing up security.

At CES 2017 there were some announcements around trying to protect Internet of Things  — including one solution from Microsoft — but in comparison to the tidal wave of connected gadgets on show, it was simply a ripple which is unlikely to have any major impact.

I don’t really want to live in a world where I get a message from my fridge while I’m in the pub, telling me I need to buy some milk, if at the same time a hacker has compromised the fridge to use in a DDoS attack against some website I might like. This is not the future we need.