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Defend IoT devices, win $25,000 from the FTC

As the dangers of net-connected devices become more apparent, the Federal Trade Commission seeks tools to keep your smart fridge out of a hacker's control.

The FTC wants tools to protect consumers from hackers who might target smart home devices.
The FTC wants tools to protect consumers from hackers who might target smart home devices.
Paul J. Richards/Getty Images

If you think you can defend smart TVs and thermostats from hackers, the Federal Trade Commission has a contest for you. It's offering $25,000 in a challenge that seeks tools to secure the notoriously insecure Internet of Things, the federal agency announced Wednesday.

"Every day, American consumers are offered innovative new products and services to make their homes smarter," Jessica Rich, head of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "Consumers want these devices to be secure, so we're asking for creativity from the public -- the tinkerers, thinkers and entrepreneurs -- to help them keep device software up to date."

They're calling it the Home Inspector Challenge.

The concern that hackers could take over smart home devices isn't new -- cybersecurity experts have been warning for years that the tech is too easy to take over remotely and use for nefarious ends. But those concerns didn't become reality for many people until October, when hackers used an army of hacked security cameras and DVRs to overwhelm popular websites with traffic.

The resulting daylong outages at Twitter, Reddit, Netflix and many other go-to sites made it clear how insecure devices in our home could affect the world outside.

What's more, the FTC announced the contest just as the annual Consumer Electronics Show gets under way in Las Vegas this week. The trade show features a smorgasbord of smart home devices: internet connected refrigerators, light switches, personal assistants and more.

These devices tend to need security updates that consumers must -- and often don't -- install themselves, and many come with default or hard-coded passwords that consumers don't or can't change. Because the devices are connected to the internet, hackers can find them online and try to gain access through these weaknesses. The bad things that could happen from there include a lot more possibilities than internet outages. Researchers have shown that hackers could take over tech as diverse as smart guns, medical devices, web cams, baby monitors, and much more.

So what does the FTC want to see from contestants?

"The tool would, at a minimum, help protect consumers from security vulnerabilities caused by out-of-date software," reads a description of the challenge. "Contestants have the option of adding features, such as those that would address hard-coded, factory default or easy-to-guess passwords."

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