The 'internet of things': How much is it tracking you?

BOSTON — The 'internet of things' is composed of all the devices and appliances that allow a user to turn up the heat, brew a pot of coffee or start the Crock Pot from a smartphone.

The convenience is great, but a real-life experiment at Northeastern University is finding there are several potential dangers that a user might not realize.

At the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute, professor David Choffnes and his graduate assistants have set up a mock apartment to better track how these web-enabled appliances can track the user.

"We’re looking at network traffic that comes out of them and trying to understand what is the information that they are sharing, what are the potential privacy and security risks, and then what can we do about it,” explained Choffnes.%



Inside the glass-enclosed living space, there are about 80 devices hooked up -- including a washer/dryer, a refrigerator, a microwave, a lock, a doorbell and a tea kettle.

Choffnes said there is even a Wi-Fi enabled toothbrush on the market.

“Your toothbrush is able to tell whether you're doing a good job and convey that information to your dental insurance company and if you're not brushing your teeth regularly, suddenly your dental rates go up," he said. "This actually exists."

Another concern is how televisions are now being made.

MORE: Can wireless challenge cable for home internet service?

“If you’ve bought a TV at all recently, it's connected to the internet. These all have Wi-Fi, and in fact, there have been studies that show these devices in some cases are watching what you're watching, and conveying that back to the manufacturer,” said Choffnes.

There are also threats to physical safety as well.%



“We have a microwave that you can engage remotely. Same thing with the washer and dryer, and other devices have mechanical components that could be put under stress and could potentially do things like catch on fire,” said Choffnes.

The researchers felt they had to create a real-life living situation to get the best feedback on how the devices are actually used. Choffnes believes these types of smart appliances will be hard to avoid in the future.

“I think it’s less about thinking about where things are today, but where they are going. I do think we will increasingly see devices that just come with this kind of connectivity,” he said.

At this point, Choffnes has two pieces of advice for consumers.

First, do some research and see if a non-Wi-Fi model of an appliance is available.

If that’s not possible, then check to see if the connectivity can be turned off in the appliance’s settings.

MORE: Tips on protecting devices from hackers