Why a smart home is a dumb risk

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Why a smart home is a dumb risk

The smart home: it’s the pinnacle of technological achievement, making our everyday lives easier by letting us control everything with an app or our voice – or, even better, not having to control it at all, simply letting algorithms and sensors take the wheel.

It’s a lot like the movie Her, except (maybe?) without the whole "falling in love with a computer."

But we’ve been promised the ultimate home for a while now. And no matter how many sweepstakes HGTV runs, a true smart home hasn’t really caught on yet.

The products are available. From your basic self-setting thermostats to automatic light bulbs to self-cleaning smart toilets, there’s nothing really stopping you from having the hi-tech home of your dreams. So why the resistance?

Besides the cost – a single Philips Hue light bulb costs $40 on sale at Amazon – security, as well as the headache in making sure smart products stay current and are able to work together, are big barriers that make the smart home revolution more of a hassle than it’s worth.

Security risks

If you’re a regular reader of the PolicyGenius blog, you know how we love talking about data breaches. They provide so many opportunities to teach people about security and managing risk.

Well, you can add smart home devices to that list. Smart homes rely heavily on wireless interconnectivity, and that means they’re ripe for hackers to take advantage of.

For example, earlier this month researchers revealed they were able to exploit a weakness in Samsung’s SmartThings hub, which connects "electronic locks, thermostats, ovens, and security systems". It allowed them to do things like unlike doors remotely. Last year, Fiat recalled connected cars because of a vulnerability that let people take over the steering.

There are a lot of ways this could be exploited. A smart fridge that automatically orders groceries when needed has your payment information on file, making it a prime target. The Nest could be a "jumping off point to gaining control of other devices in your home." Products that sense when you’re away offer crooks information on when the best time to rob your home is (just like social media check-in apps). Even seemingly innocuous features, like the fact that the Amazon Echo isn’t locked to a particular voice pattern so anyone could theoretically have access to your calendar or to-do list, could pose a threat in the wrong hands.

We expose ourselves to a lot of potential attacks as it is. One of the considerations we’ll have to think of when it comes to smart homes is whether or not we want to add even more vulnerabilities to our lives. If we can’t trust Target with our personal data, are we really going to trust our fridge?

Obsolete products

We’re used to electronics getting outdated. Sometimes we ditch them to get the newest model, but sometimes the choice is out of our hands when a manufacturer stops supporting them. Maybe they won’t continue with security updates, which, as we just saw, are important, or they’ll just stop working altogether.

Because smart products are reliant on the cloud for their smart features, they require upkeep and maintenance by the manufacturer. Once the manufacturer decides it’s not worth the cost and trouble to maintain, your once-state-of-the-art home appliance is little more than a shiny, pretty paperweight.

That’s what happened with Revolv, which was purchased by Google and acts as a smart home hub to integrate different products. It was recently announced that in May 2016 the service is being shut down and will stop working entirely. Oh, and it isn’t being covered by a warranty. That means users will have to find a different way to make their smart products work together and left them with what amounts to a hummus container.

Other times making a system obsolete can be incidental. Last year, updates to the Wink Smart Home hub bricked the systems of about 25% of users, making them completely unusable. Even though it was unintentional (and temporary, since Wink was fixing the problem) that doesn’t really make a difference to the customer: they were still left with a product that was not only broken itself, but broke a number of other household items, too.

Fragmentation

If you’re a savvy digital consumer, you know how hard tech companies and retailers are trying to lock you into their systems.

You can buy music digitally from Amazon, Apple, Google, and more, but each has their own interface. Sometimes retailers use digital rights management, or DRM, to make you stick with their systems. That happened more in the past than the present but a lot of people probably remember being able to only play iTunes-purchased music in iTunes with your specific iTunes account (and some companies still try it – looking at you, Keurig).

There are similar ways to lock you into retailers these days. Amazon, for instance, has taken their Amazon Prime service beyond free two-day shipping to include Netflix-like video streaming, Spotify-like music streaming, integration with the Kindle and Echo, and more. They want to remove every barrier that might cause you to leave Amazon for a competitor.

Smart home developers can be the same way. If you want the full smart home experience, you either have to buy products from the same manufacturer that were designed to work together with a proprietary system, or buy products from different manufacturers that will hopefully work together (and scour internet forums to figure out how to do it). Products that work cross-brand usually use a "standards-based" systems that are more open, but even then, "not all standards-based systems offer "interoperability" (compatibility) between brands."

In late 2015 Philips released a update to their Hue smart bulb connectivity bridge so that, instead of continuing to support smart bulbs from a number of manufacturers, it only worked with Philips (or Philips-approved) bulbs. Philips changed course after only a few days when backlash came in from consumers who now had what amounted to a broken system but in that short time it highlighted the interoperability problem that smart homes continue to have to this day.

A "walled garden" approach might not seem like a huge deal when it comes to streaming music or buying apps, but when you’re dropping a few hundred dollars a piece on multiple smart products, locking yourself into a system (that, again, might become obsolete in only a few years) or trying to figure out a workaround could be a headache. Your smart home is at the mercy of business interests that can change at a whim.

Steep learning curves

Smart homes will, ostensibly, make using our homes easier. Things adapt to our use and preferences to turn on and off automatically

Take Amazon’s smart home guide. It’s actually a pretty great guide, laying out all of the different devices that can give your house’s brain a boost (and are conveniently available for purchase on Amazon! Imagine that!).

But then you see the different categories – locks, cameras, wi-fi setup, lights, thermostat, garage door – and things start to get overwhelming. Oh, and then you notice the "Communications Protocol Guide" and before you’re even finished wondering what exactly that means your eyes have already wandered to "Controllers Guide," and then you realize that both of those guides are separate from the "How to Connect Your Tech" guide, and that’s when you start to think that sure, you’re kind of a lazy person, but you can at least flip a light switch yourself, and actually using a key isn’t that big of a hassle, and who needs all of this technology anyway and get off my lawn!

Outside of getting things to work together, the biggest hurdle for smart homes is convincing people they need one at all. And those two things are inextricably linked: you won’t convince people that there’s a better way to do something if all they see are the hassle and upkeep that they don’t currently have to deal with.

A lot of manufacturers focus on user interface to entice customers. It’s why the Nest looks so pretty. But until manufacturers can make setup – getting everything online and playing nice with every other device – just as easy to use without shoppers feeling like they need an MIT degree, they’ll still run into resistance.

Is the smart home still the way of the future? Considering how integrated our smartphones have become with our lives, and the rise of personal assistants and "artificial intelligence" like Siri and the Echo’s Alexa, it feels inevitable that more and more devices will become interconnected in the future.

But smart homes still have a long way to go. Until it becomes worth it to replace every item in our home with a smarter analog, it’s just not worth the trouble – or the risk.

Image: JMAS