South Korea’s new apartment complexes increasingly adopt the Internet of Things, or IoT, in which everyday objects and smart devices are connected via the internet. The fast-evolving technology allows residents to remotely turn on and off lights, control home appliances and check for visitors, in what is held up as the future of digital homes.
At the heart of apartment IoT is a wallpad, a rectangular smart pad attached to a wall that activates a range of remote functions linked to Wi-Fi network-enabled home appliances and gadgets. Construction companies tout new types of high-tech wallpads as a selling point for homebuyers.
But when the security setup is not strong enough, these devices can become fatal cracks through which hackers infiltrate and, in the worst cases, secretly browse the innermost spaces of unsuspecting households.
Korean apartments are particularly vulnerable to wallpad hacking, as a number of households in the same complex are interconnected through the same network, with the result that the hacking of a single home can put all the other homes at risk.
The much-dreaded scenario materialised this month, leading Korean apartment residents to suddenly feel concerned about wallpads installed in their homes.
Over the weekend, local media reported that unidentified hackers had recorded and distributed multiple video files that recorded the private lives of residents from some 700 apartment complexes across the nation by manipulating the video function of the wallpads.
The photos and video files in question reportedly surfaced on November 11 on a website frequented by hackers. “We have infiltrated into most Korean apartment complexes and the files were extracted from smart devices at apartments,” claimed the hacker, who allegedly uploaded files containing not only everyday activities but also sexual scenes.
On major online communities, a list of hacked apartment complexes spread rapidly on November 26, including those in Seoul, Gyeonggi province, Incheon and Busan, and on Jeju Island, though its authenticity has not been confirmed. People are reported to have put covers on their wallpad cameras even if their complexes were not on the list.
As public concerns mounted, police set out to investigate, marking the first major hacking to affect multiple apartment complexes here. The National Police Agency said it received a request for investigation from the Korea Internet & Security Agency on November 22 and is now conducting a probe. An official from the police cyber team was quoted as saying that police are scrutinising network access records of apartments mentioned on the hackers’ list.
Given that apartment wallpads do not have a recording feature themselves, hackers appear to have recorded the footage in real time by manipulating the wallpad cameras in multiple homes after breaking into the lax security system of a single household connected with the systems of neighbours.
The Ministry of Science and ICT belatedly unveiled a plan to make it mandatory for home networks to run separately from those of neighbours living in the same apartment complexes, a move that would fix the long-neglected security loophole. Wallpad manufacturers are also putting up extra security programmes and blocking external transmission of video through the devices.
Security experts say the most effective preventive step now is to cover the camera lens of the wallpad and other home IoT devices with built-in cameras, thereby blocking hackers from secretly recording anything.
The government, which often boasts of the country’s well-connected broadband and wireless networks, should consider modifying regulations that would strengthen security for a growing list of network-based smart devices and checking other potential digital security loopholes, such as public and home Wi-Fi networks that are often seen as easy targets for hackers.
Despite the shocking wallpad hacking case, the government should avoid overreacting with stifling regulations. For instance, any step to completely block smart devices from interconnecting with each other for fear of hacking threats would reverse the digital trend toward networked homes. Instead, it should take proactive and realistic security measures that can better protect citizens from hacking attempts and nurture the nascent IoT industry for the future.
EDITORIAL / THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK