Got An Idea On How To Make ‘Internet Of Things’ More Secure? You Could Win $25,000

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Internet-connected (“smart”) devices are becoming ubiquitous, but they have this persistent problem: they’re internet-connected. A huge number are extremely vulnerable to being taken over by bad actors, for a whole host of reasons. And so, before your fridge becomes part of the next record-breaking botnet, the Federal Trade Commission wants to give someone cold, hard, cash money for coming up with a way to prevent it.

That’s the goal behind the $25,000 prize the FTC announced this week.

The name is a mouthful — the Internet of Things Home Inspector Challenge — but the concept is fairly straightforward: create a technical solution (“tool,” the FTC helpfully and governmentally adds) that home consumers can use to help protect themselves from the security vulnerabilities in their stuff. The best tool wins a $25,000 prize and up to three runner-up (honorable mention) teams can also win $3,000 each.

Poor security is so far proving to be a surprisingly intractable challenge, exacerbated both by poor design and also human nature. Many devices are simply not well-designed, from a security point of view. Something as simple as passwords, for example: many devices have terribly basic, universal, or completely absent default passwords on them. Or worse, they’re hard-coded to accept only one — or none at all.

And so we find ourselves in a time and a place where hearing about some kind of thing — cars, firearms, baby monitors, security cameras, printers — being remotely accessed, either for crime or just to prove a point that it can be, is a common news item.

Human nature is, alas, harder to solve. Very few of us are technical experts; most consumers who buy things now simply expect them to work. And then when something critical — like, say, your home router — is already out of date and vulnerable before you even take it out of the box, a huge consumers neither know that they need to update it nor, if they do, how. Extend that to watches, refrigerators, cars, ceiling fans, thermostats, door locks, light bulbs, and more that constantly need some kind of non-automatic update and, well, most people simply won’t do it. They’ll set it and forget it, instead.

Those are the two main challenges that the FTC hopes someone out there is feeling clever enough to fix.

“Every day American consumers are offered innovative new products and services to make their homes smarter,” the FTC’s consumer protection bureau head Jessica Rich 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.”

Submissions will be accepted from March 1 through May 22 of this year. After the first round of competition closes, up to 20 first-round submissions will be selected for further review and judging. Anyone interested in the contest can visit its website for rules and submission guidelines.