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Your robot devices might be selling you out and you don’t even know it.

(TECH NEWS) Your devices might be being used to attack the internet without you knowing.

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Robot rising

Well, shoot. I’ve dubbed myself lead correspondent for American Genius on the robot apocalypse, and I put my money on “probably not.” I even had a look at the state of the Internet of Things, consumer edition and concluded Siri and Alexa were flawed but interesting home conveniences rather than what they clearly were, the chill metal claw of mechanized conquest, their soothing voices soon to be calling out our shift assignments in the tungsten mines.

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Sure enough, turns out your DVR is plotting against you, like Palpatine if he were tiny, rectangular and full of “Grey’s Anatomy” reruns.

Just kidding!! Mostly …

The good news, if that’s what we’re calling this, is that you’re probably not being hacked in the sense of endangering your personal data.
Instead, the goal is to build a botnet, a network of thousands or millions of blissfully unaware people’s devices that gives hackers all their processing power at once.

Lots of computers, one task

Having several thousand computers working on the same task enables some pretty high-end shady dealings.

The most popular are DDoS attacks.

DDoS attacks overload web services with input until they crash, or brute forcing passwords, running millions of possibilities in a short period of time in order to access a valuable service.

How the robots could win

Thankfully, as wiser minds than mine have pointed out, the robot apocalypse is unlikely because robots are clueless.

The only reason the botnet scenario is possible is because we’re being more clueless, and when I say “we,” that definitely includes “I” because I’ve done this.

More accurately, I haven’t done it: change all my passwords. Your Internet-enabled Things often ship with a stock default password. Some don’t come with set passwords at all. You have to do it yourself.

This is why we can’t have nice things

The scumbags pulling this digital nonsense are doing so via the mastermind tactic of R-ing TFM (which is geek speak for reading the effing manual) and finding out what the default passwords are.

Make sure you change those up, try not to repeat passwords you use for other important things, and with any luck you’re off the list for the tungsten mines.

Real talk: when smart people say they’re worried about the Internet of Things, this is why.

Its forgettable

The trouble with tech running passively in the background is that you, I and every other h. sapiens will kind of forget about it, the same way we forget about the mechanical interactions in our doorknobs.

We trust the machines to interact with one another: knob turns, latch releases, door opens. We don’t keep the schematics handy.

Concerns over the Internet of Things are that phenomenon writ large, the recognition that the IoT equivalent of something going ‘ping’ in your doorknob could put the same password you use with your bank in the hands of a scumbag with a laptop and unpleasant intentions.

Keep your security fresh

There may be a large-scale answer to some of this soon: in data security, smart people are working overtime to plug the holes in the Grand Network of Stuff. In the interim, however, simple information security should enough to keep you out of a criminal conspiracy with your Bluetooth-enabled blender.

Switch up your passwords. Make sure nothing’s on default.Click To Tweet

And keep an eye on that Tivo of yours. Looks shifty.

#WatchYourBots

Matt Salter is a writer and former fundraising and communications officer for nonprofit organizations, including Volunteers of America and PICO National Network. He’s excited to put his knowledge of fundraising, marketing, and all things digital to work for your reading enjoyment. When not writing about himself in the third person, Matt enjoys horror movies and tabletop gaming, and can usually be found somewhere in the DFW Metroplex with WiFi and a good all-day breakfast.

Real Estate Technology

How OpenDoor became a unicorn (a company valued at over $1B)

(BUSINESS NEWS) Good news for direct home sales and fans of adorable mythical quadrupeds – OpenDoor is a unicorn. What does its billion dollar valuation mean for the modern real estate market?

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Online direct home sales is officially a thing. That was probably inevitable, given increasing automation of sales (robots are coming for your jobs – not that they can do them yet!), an ongoing Disrupt All The Things mentality amongst entrepreneurs, and sellers’ frankly understandable desire for a smoother, easier way to get rid of their people boxes.

Seriously, the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Index puts selling a home above quitting freaking smoking in terms of medically significant stress. People are understandably interested in making that suck less.

Enter OpenDoor.

The OpenDoor offer is direct online sales. TL;DR – OpenDoor gets information from the customer, then sets a price for the property being sold, sight unseen. On top of that price, OpenDoor charges a risk fee, a flat 6.7 percent on top of the stated value, to guard against depreciation. In exchange, OpenDoor takes over the selling process, spiffs up the house and sells at a profit. As CB Insights says in its excellent analysis of OpenDoor, it’s basically high tech house flipping.

The OpenDoor pitch is that their system benefits both seller and buyer. They’re impressively honest about the math: They say their flat 6.7 percent is pretty much comparable with the costs and fees associated with traditional real estate sales, which is true. The advantage comes in, says OpenDoor, because the property is then out of the seller’s hands, no muss, no fuss.

That spares them from the hassle of home sales, but it’s also easier on the prospective buyer than the usual peer-to-peer approach. No need to balance two mortgages, no deals contingent on the house selling at a certain price. The house has already been sold at a certain price. Pony up and it’s yours.

We could argue pros and cons all day, but that’s not the point. The point is that, on a small but growing scale, the OpenDoor offer is working. OpenDoor currently operates in and around Atlanta, Las Vegas, Orlando, Phoenix, Raleigh-Durham, and my own fair hometown of DFW. OpenDoor focuses on second-tier real estate markets, avoiding the fluctuations and complex variables of Realty Madness as it is to be found in NYC, the Bay Area and so on.

In those cities, since its start as a spindly little startup in 2014, OpenDoor has served better than 10,757 total customers.

Per the CEO, it currently accounts for 3 percent of home sales in Phoenix and Dallas. Chump change that ain’t.

They’re already thinking expansion. San Antonio and Charlotte are the next towns slated for Missy Elliot treatment. For those of you who missed the 90s, Missy Elliot treatment is of course “put the thing down, flip it, and reverse it.” Surprisingly apt! Seriously, OpenDoor’s missing a trick if they don’t license that one.

Catchy but unpronounceable hooks aside, OpenDoor is taking a fair amount of risk along with their more than fair amount of money. In particular, focused as they are on moving up in the world, OpenDoor is carrying a lot of debt. As of fall 2017 they had borrowed on the order of $600 million to fund home purchases.

At their current 7.4 percent average gross margin on home sales, that’s sustainable, but it’s a whole lot of money to gamble on a new thing continuing to work. A housing downturn or even a comparatively minor shift in value could easily throw that balance out of whack, and while OpenDoor executives state that the debt would still be supportable in a downturn with an increase in risk fee, there’s always the possibility of chilling an already shaky market with too big a jump.

To state the obvious, avoiding that kind of risk is literally why there are Realtors, and why the real estate market in general works the way it does.

Distributing the risk between bank and homeowners, rather than having one organization take it all, minimizes the possibility of failure. OpenDoor has decided to take that risk, and is confident its model will be enough to ameliorate it. Whether that’s the case or not is an open question.

Most unicorns are just shiny horses standing under the right branch. But if OpenDoor can sustainably deliver on its core offer, then score one for the mythical horsebeast.

This editorial was originally published January 9, 2018.

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Real Estate Technology

How long it takes to break even on smart home upgrades

(TECHNOLOGY NEWS) Smart home features can spruce up any house but when you’re upgrading to these features, where does the spending end and the savings begin?

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Smart home devices are primarily marketed as adding convenience and luxury to your home. They allow you to interconnect your appliances with your smartphone and to monitor and control your utilities remotely. But do smart home devices actually save you money?

Smart devices like speakers and music players are obviously designed to allow you the convenience of playing whatever music you want, wherever you want it. But smart devices that monitor or adjust utilities like heating and water could also save you money on your bills.

Joel Lee over at MakeUseOf has crunched the numbers. He’s published a rundown of the most money-saving smart devices, and how long it will take for the devices to “pay for” themselves.

Smart thermostats are perhaps the most obvious devices for saving you money on utilities. Nest says that their thermostat will save you 13 percent on heating and cooling; ecobee3 claims an even more impressive 23 percent.

Comparing these numbers with U.S. Department of Energy statistics on average household utility costs, Lee calculated that a Nest thermostat will pay for itself in just over two years, while an ecobee3 will pay for itself in just one year.

Rachio is a smart sprinkler device that maintains your lawn watering schedule. It makes sure that the sprinklers turn off on rainy days, conserves water when it’s cold out, and optimizes the watering schedule for maximum absorption.

Rachio claims it can help you cut your spending on water for the lawn by 50 percent. Lee estimates a more conservative 30 percent, but even so, says that the device will pay for itself within 15 months.

Plus, he adds, a smart sprinkler system will also increase the overall value of your home, letting you set a higher price point should you decide to sell it.

Lee wasn’t particularly impressed by LED lightbulbs, pointing out that it will take almost the full lifecycle of the LED bulb to recoup the expense of buying them in the first place. The savings are a bit better, he says, if you compare them to the costs of running incandescent bulbs, and if you skip over the big brand names in favor of lesser known, but also less expensive LEDs.

Lastly, Lee recommends smart moisture sensors. These devices can warn you of leaks, roof damage, and other water damage long before you might notice the effects. If these sensors can give you a heads up on even one potential water-damage disaster, the device will clearly have paid for itself.

It appears that smart home devices could be worth the investment, although it’s important to note that these devices are notoriously insecure. While you may save money on your utilities, one bad hack could easily cancel out these money-saving benefits.

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Real Estate Technology

Make sure your password isn’t on the “Worst Passwords” list

(TECH NEWS) Gather around for the worst passwords of 2017 and be prepared to feel ashamed if yours is on this list.

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Alright pals, it’s time for another roundup review of the most common passwords. Looking back at 2017, there were tons of services that got hacked, from Equifax to Yahoo. While some breaches can leave everyone blindsided with the skill behind the attacks, other hacks are easily avoided by not having a dumb password.

Like, for real, if your password is still “password,” no one will send you a sympathy card when your online life gets wrecked.

And if you’re still rocking “123456,” do yourself a favor and log off from everything forever.

Security firm SplashData released a compilation of the top 100 “Worst Passwords of 2017” (#34 is pretty neat). They crafted the list from an analysis of five million leaked online user records from the past year.

While the list is hilarious, it should be taken with a grain of salt. There are roughly 3.2 billion people online, and it’s likely each person has more than one account that requires login credentials. Regardless, here are the 25 worst offenders:

  1. 123456
  2. password
  3. 12345678
  4. qwerty
  5. 12345
  6. 123456789
  7. letmein
  8. 1234567
  9. football
  10. iloveyou
  11. admin
  12. welcome
  13. monkey
  14. login
  15. abc123
  16. starwars
  17. 123123
  18. dragon
  19. passw0rd
  20. master
  21. hello
  22. freedom
  23. whatever
  24. qazwsd
  25. trustno1

If we pretended like each person only has one account, a leaked list of five million doesn’t even make up one percent of all passwords online. Plus, the internet is now rife with bots, who aren’t included in that 3.2 billion headcount.

Sometimes programmers use easy to remember passwords for bots that make it in to the hall of shame, like “qwerty” or “12341234.” Plus, many databases require a password to look at passwords, so hopefully those didn’t leak onto the list.

Even with this in mind, there are still plenty of actual people using tragically simple passwords featured in SplashData’s list.

My personal favorites include “trustno1” and newcomer to the list, “starwars.” Plenty of common first names like Daniel, Amanda, and Matthew made it on the list as well.

Some very ambitious people opted for wishful thinking in using luxury car brands like Ferrari, Mercedes, and Corvette as their passwords. Other notable mentions include “letmein” and inexplicably, “cheese” and “killer.”

Here’s the thing: you’re probably going to get hacked at some point. If you’re lucky, it will just be some throwaway email account you use for special offers.

Protect yourself by regularly changing your passwords, and using unique passwords for each account you have. You can use generators to create strong passwords, and keep track of them all using a secure password manager services.

Additionally, if two-factor authentication is available through whatever service you’re using that requires login credentials, take them up on that additional protection.

Ultimately though, if the service you’re using isn’t properly encrypting and hashing personally-identifying information, a strong password won’t help.

Oh and also because the internet is full of equal amounts of good and bad, there is the constant presence of persistent hackers who will relentlessly use phishing attempts and large-scale hacks to derail databases. Secure passwords won’t help either.

Basically we’re always open for hacking attempts, and nothing at the moment can really stop them. However, after having my bike seat and accessories stolen numerous times, I learned a nice philosophy that can apply to all sorts of things.

You can’t stop someone from trying to steal your stuff, but if you make it difficult enough they may give up. Do whatever you can to secure your passwords, but recognize that ultimately there aren’t that many great protections in place.

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