Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Is your toilet spying on you?

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A middle-aged man wearing a sweatshirt removes an elderly woman's clothes and begins wiping her body late one night at a house in Hyogo Prefecture. Could they be mother and son? Soon after, the man fills a washbowl with water and carefully washes her hands. They then eat a meal together. On another day, the woman is seen sitting on a chair for a long time.

These scenes are part of the footage aired around the clock on the Internet. For five years and eight months, the two did not realize their daily lives were being broadcast live via a camera set up inside their house.

In March 2008, the man signed up for a service enabling users with computers and smartphones to remotely monitor what elderly family members were doing through footage transmitted from cameras set up inside their homes. The man paid a monthly fee of about $8 for the service.

However, the man did not know if users do not change the initial settings of the service, the footage will be automatically broadcast online, allowing anybody to watch.

According to the Yano Research Institute, a market research company, about 400,000 network cameras are now sold annually. Cameras produced by Panasonic Corp. -- a leader in the field -- are all initially set to allow everyone to watch the footage online.

Some websites have even compiled videos from such cameras. One such site shows footage of children taking a nap at a kindergarten in Tokyo and a woman relaxing as a hairdresser washes her hair. Some cameras allow remote users to change the viewing angle or zoom in.

Such risks are not limited to network cameras. The number of electrical appliances connected to the Internet -- such as TVs and multifunction printers -- has steadily increased.

In February 2013, major household equipment manufacturer Lixil Corp. released a high-tech toilet on which users can control the temperature of the toilet seat and the volume of water, using their smartphones as a remote control. However, it took only six months for a security company to discover that the toilets "can easily be controlled from outside" because the initial password for administrators was set as 0000.

"It is not rare to find the passwords of Internet-connected electrical appliances left unchanged from such simple passwords," said Fumiaki Yamasaki, a specially appointed professor at the University of Aizu who specializes in information security.

According to Yamasaki, it is even easy to find the default passwords for such appliances based on makers or models of machines online.

Despite such concerns, appliances are becoming more IT-friendly by the day. In Japan, the Electrical Appliance and Material Safety Law banned such electric appliances as air conditioners and refrigerators from allowing remote access, but the regulations were relaxed in May 2013.


-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 D6

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