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It’s probably time to start thinking about a strong password for your refrigerator, like “N0SnaxAtNite!”  An e-mail security firm says it detected what it calls the first hacker attack on the Internet of Things this month, and yes, a refrigerator was among the devices that were compromised by the intruders.

The computer criminals also hacked into home multimedia centers and TVs. They used these devices as part of an illegal spam campaign between Dec. 23 and Jan. 6 that launched more than 750,000 malicious emails, according to Sunnyvale, Calif-based Proofpoint Inc.

It calls the compromised machines “ThingBots,” and they can be a spammer’s best friend. Anti-spam technology easily spots a computer sending out thousands of similar e-mails and cuts it off; that’s why spammers turn to “botnets,” or networks of compromised computers.  Spammers use these botnets to send out a trickle of messages from each machine, using a time-honored technique that’s much harder to detect.

The Internet of Things, and ThingBots, open up a new universe of possibilities for hackers.  Technology firms are rushing to put computer chips with wireless networking capabilities into every electronic device in our homes.  The chips will allow toasters, coffee pots, garage doors — really anything with a power cord – to communicate. The industry got a big boost this week when Google announced it was buying home automation company Nest Labs.

IDC predicts that more than 200 billion “things” will be connected via the Internet by 2020. Almost all of them will have less security than your typical home computer.  So while “botnets” of hijacked computers are the playground of hackers today, ThingBots — compromised door locks, hacked fridges, and so on — will take hacker mischief to a whole new level soon.

In this case, Proofpoint says the hacked fridge and other gadgets were part of a network of 100,000 machines that were used to send out fewer than 10 e-mails apiece during the entire attack, meaning the e-mail traffic looked perfectly ordinary. More than 25 percent of the bots used in the attack were “things” – everyday consumer gadgets — rather than computers or mobile phones, the firm says.

“In many cases, the devices had not been subject to a sophisticated compromise; instead, misconfiguration and the use of default passwords left the devices completely exposed on public networks, available for takeover and use,” the firm said in its announcement.

Security firms are raising plenty of alarm bells about all these connected gadgets: Will they create the exciting future-friendly world of George Jetson, or will they enable a massive surveillance network akin to the vision of George Orwell?  ThingBots raise an additional concern, as most consumers already complain that electronic devices like high-end televisions are too complicated to use. It’s unlikely they will embrace requirements to set complex passwords and install hacker-fighting software on their electronics.

“Internet-enabled devices represent an enormous threat because they are easy to penetrate, consumers have little incentive to make them more secure, the rapidly growing number of devices can send malicious content almost undetected, few vendors are taking steps to protect against this threat, and the existing security model simply won’t work to solve the problem,” said David Knight, General Manager of Proofpoint’s Information Security division. “Many of these devices are poorly protected at best and consumers have virtually no way to detect or fix infections when they do occur.”

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