Want easy-to-set-up gadget security? It’s not going to be cheap

Security executives are pushing out easy cybersecurity solutions for the average person. The hard part will be getting people to pay for it.

Alfred Ng
Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
5 min read

The proliferation of connected gadgets in the home means there's a lot more for the average person to worry about.

It's not just your phone and computer that need the latest security updates. You'll have to stay on top of your connected television, your smart refrigerator, the security cameras mounted around your home, your voice assistant speakers, your smart mirrors, your talking toilet and whatever new gadget the tech overlords spew out.

Welcome to the unintended hassle of the internet of things.

"If you have a lot of IoT devices, you're essentially an IT manager," Gary Davis, McAfee's vice president of global consumer marketing, said last month at CES 2018.

It's telling that many security firms were at the massive gadget expo to hawk their services. CES is typically a place for companies to show off physical goods that people can buy in stores in the near future. The pitch for security as a product itself -- like a new television or washing machine -- underscores the growing interest and need for better protection, a notion reinforced by the wave of cyberattacks in 2017.

Keeping everything safe sounds like a hassle, but security companies are willing to make it easy -- for a price.

Nearly every company I spoke with at the show boasted about how their products were the solution to looming IoT risks. But prices for that benefit ranged from $99 to $249, in some cases as an annual payment. While technically you can do it yourself, many consumers are willing to accept the premium for protection.

"It used to be hard selling security to the mass market," said Sameer Nayar, the co-founder of Cujo Smart Firewall. "Not anymore. If it's simple, it definitely helps sales."

Cujo is one of the many "plug and play" security measures I spotted during CES -- the sales pitch being that it's simple enough that your grandparents or kids can figure it out. With Cujo, you don't have to tweak your settings and manually run an antivirus scan. The firewall device plugs into your router and is supposed to protect everything that's connected to the network. It warns you if any connected smart devices are outdated, and blocks out malicious traffic.

Like many security companies at CES, Cujo is selling itself on simplicity. The firewall costs $249 and has no subscription fees. It looks like an air freshener with LED eyes, almost as if it's a cute assistant by your bedside table.

That's part of Cujo's sales approach too. Nayar said the company doesn't want security to be this scary obstacle for people, so it gave its device a friendly robot look.

"The more barriers you can remove, the easier it becomes to sell," he said.

Doomsday scenario

When you're expecting 20.4 billion IoT devices on the market, you need to start dumbing down security for people to embrace it.

In 2016, the Mirai botnet, a massive network of hacked devices, caused a massive internet outage by using thousands of outdated cameras and DVRs. A year later, security experts raised concerns about the Reaper botnet, which had the potential to hijack up to 2 million IoT devices.

F-Secure, a security company based in Finland, warned that if IoT devices aren't fixed now, we'll be headed to a "dystopian future."

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These doomsday scenarios, built on a massive amount of hacked IoT gadgets, could be avoided if gadget owners took the time to secure their devices. But that's not how people think when they buy tech, Davis said.

"When someone buys something, the last thing they think about is 'how do I lock this thing down?'" the McAfee executive said.

He recognizes that for many people, maintaining security is a burden, and that's a major challenge for averting future cyberattacks. So when McAfee wanted to provide a simple product, it decided to put it in the router. Davis figured that any home with an internet connection was going to need one anyway, so the company might as well package it with security.

At CES, McAfee announced it was partnering with D-Link to make secure routers, designed to automatically protect your network and all the devices on it. The router costs $250, with a subscription fee it's still deciding on. It's similar to Bitdefender's Box 2, or the Norton Core, which cost $250 and $280, respectively. Both also have a subscription service -- $99 a year for the Box 2 and $120 for the Core.  

It's a price the security market thinks average consumers are going to have to pay if they don't want to learn all the technical security details.

Comcast, a major US internet provider, thinks the router is the best method for providing security too. It's partnering with Cujo to create a security router for its Xfinity xFi customers that costs $10 a month to rent.

The cable giant is still deciding on the price for the new security router. Andrea Peiro, Comcast's vice president of product strategy and development, said that "making it cheap and simple is almost a moral mission." That price will be on top of paying at least $75 a month for Comcast's internet service.  

"Security is going to be important for everybody," Peiro said. "You shouldn't need to have technical knowledge to protect your family digitally."

The DIY route

If you did want to have security for cheap, it might not be as hard as these companies are trying to sell you on.

For starters, you could make sure you're buying an IoT device that was built with security in mind -- something that updates on its own without needing to prompt you about it. A high-quality IoT device such as the Google Home usually costs more than its counterparts, but it could save you money in the long run.

Adam Meyers, CrowdStrike's vice president of intelligence, feels that's a better way to address the issue than buying a security router with a subscription fee attached to it. Getting people to care about security is hard enough. It's an entirely different hurdle to get them to want to pay for it, he noted.

"A security router is a nice idea, but you have to motivate people to want to buy it," he said. "If they aren't taking the time to secure and update their IoT devices already, what makes you think they're going to buy one of these devices?"

If you're interested in having security and keeping it cheap, Meyers recommends putting all your devices behind a firewall, which you can do through most existing routers. Admittedly, it can be complicated if you're unfamiliar with configuring your network.

Which is why simplicity for security has become its biggest selling point. An average person might not understand security, but he or she understands convenience, said Tyler Shields, vice president of strategy at security company Signal Science. People would appreciate it even more if it were affordable too.

"Convenience is a big piece of it," Shields said. "I don't have to worry about going through all my items and getting updates. I'll give you $5 a month for that any day."  

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