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Adding risk to our homes

In the rush to solve one problem (energy consumption), it looks as though we're creating new security risks.

Gaining the ability to remotely control your HVAC might seem like an energy-responsible thing to do, but it might also pose hidden security risks.

In a recent blog titled Security implications in HVAC equipment SANS handler Swa Frantzen wrote of his concerns regarding one energy-saving program in Texas. The utility, TXU, uses what's called an iThermostat, which allows you to program your thermostat remotely over the Internet from any laptop or desktop.

In California, PG&E offers a similar program, SmartAC. PG&E also uses an Internet addressable, programmable thermostat, however, the user guide (PDF) mentions only remote access from the utility, not from the end user.

Frantzen makes it clear that's he's not intentionally picking on the iThermostat system; he's only using it for educational purposes. Nor am I necessarily saying the SmartAC program is flawed either. I do, however, think his academic questions are quite valid because they go beyond just HVAC systems.

Recently there was a security hole identified within an Internet-connected coffee maker. I think the first question here should be: do we really need to access our coffee machine remotely?

It might be argued that these systems (the HVAC and coffee machine) both terminate--they don't necessarily allow a remote attacker access to a home computer network. But that's for right now. Jump ahead a few years when these systems start talking each other, when you'll be able to create a warm and comfy home environment from your desktop at work.

Until then, what if someone remotely views your schedule of when the AC turns on and off? It could tip a potential burglar to when you're likely to be home and when not. And what if, asks Frantzen, the remote lockout on the thermostat fails and some remote hacker cranks the heat or air conditioning setting to its maximum setting while you're on vacation?

Is anyone even thinking about these issues? If not, shouldn't someone be?