Is WiFi or Bluetooth leaving you vulnerable? What are the privacy pros and cons of each?
Check out our full Privacy Not Included 2020 guide here.
WiFi and Bluetooth. They’re the invisible radio waves all around us that drive our wireless life. WiFi (generally) helps devices connect to the internet, Bluetooth (generally) connects devices to other devices. Both are found in a myriad of products: from coffee makers to mirrors; from kids toys to adult toys. Even basic items around the house like bathroom scales and foam rollers are connected now.
So what’s the downside to all this? With added convenience comes added vulnerability. Now that many devices ship with WiFi or Bluetooth built-in, it’s important to know the pluses and minuses of each when it comes to your privacy and security.
WiFi helps your device connect to the internet. (Usually. Sometimes it connects your device to other devices.)
The Nitty Gritty
WiFi is generally used to get you on the internet, by connecting your device to a router. WiFi is good at transferring small amounts of data (like loading a webpage or trading a Pokémon between Nintendo Switch devices) as well as large amounts of data (like streaming a movie or downloading a file that’s gigabytes in size). It also works at far-away distances, which is why your router can be on one end of the house and you can still connect to it from the other end.
WiFi devices like routers can be password protected to keep unfriendlies off the network. In addition, a WiFi product on your network can detect other devices that are also on your network (“Hello friend!”). This means devices with WiFi can afford special permissions to devices also on the same network. An Apple TV, for example, has a feature that lets iPhone users display their phone’s screen on their television, if both are on the same WiFi network. If your WiFi network is password protected, this keeps strangers from putting whatever they want on your TV screen.
The most effective way to secure WiFi connected devices is to connect them to a network that is protected with a strong password (see more below!).
Bluetooth helps your device connect directly to other devices.
The Nitty Gritty
Bluetooth is generally used to link one device to another. Once the connection between two devices is made, it’s pretty secure. Unlike WiFi, Bluetooth’s range is much shorter.
Bluetooth’s limited range means that anything bad that can happen to you via Bluetooth can only happen when someone close to you does it.
Bluetooth’s range is a double-edged sword. The good news is that anything bad that could happen to you over Bluetooth can only happen nearby you. The bad news is that unknown parties can get a good sense of your constant location just by detecting where your phone’s Bluetooth signal has moved throughout the day. In fact this actually happens with advertisers that have set up Bluetooth beacons in storefronts. If you purchase a fitness band or smartwatch or any device that requires you keep Bluetooth on all the time, know this may open you up to this sort of targeted advertising or other security concerns.
So which is safer? Should you prioritize devices with WiFi and skip over ones with Bluetooth? Or vice versa?
Let’s use smart locks as an example. The August Smart Lock is WiFi-enabled while the Eufy Smart Lock is Bluetooth-enabled. WiFi allows August’s lock to connect to the internet, which lets users operate it from anywhere in the world using an app. But when it comes to security, locks like these could leave you compromised. We mentioned before how one WiFi gadget with weak defenses could lead to hackers accessing other devices on your network and August made headlines earlier this year for exactly that. Luckily, it didn’t allow hackers to actually enter the home.
Hackers aside, the use of WiFi in a lock presents another issue: what happens when your WiFi goes out or August’s servers go down?
Meanwhile Eufy’s lock doesn’t need working internet to function properly, the lock will detect your phone within 30 feet of range if Bluetooth is on. Though just because Eufy uses Bluetooth doesn’t make it impenetrable. Recent Bluetooth hacks have shown how hackers can crash a device’s ability to use Bluetooth at all (highly inconvenient if your door lock is a Bluetooth-enabled one), while past vulnerabilities have shown how Bluetooth locks from smaller companies transmit unique identifiers in easy-to-intercept ways. Like regular locks, smart locks aren’t foolproof.
If you lose your phone, the lock also has a fingerprint sensor, passcode option and a literal, physical key (remember those?).
Add a password to your WiFi network
Once your device is connected to your WiFi network, you should consider its security (or lack of security) connected to the other devices on your network. Make sure that your router is password-protected so strangers can’t hop on and gain access to any smart devices you may own.
Turn off Bluetooth/WiFi when not in use
If you’re not using a device’s WiFi or Bluetooth, turn it off. Both features offer convenience but if you’re not making use of either, no need to open yourself up to potential attack. Many bluetooth-enabled phones and computers have quick access to WiFi and Bluetooth on and off switches via the menu bar, quick actions menu or wherever else convenient toggles may live. Regardless of what you’re using, you should be able to find switches for both in your device’s settings section.