Smart Homes for Dummies

Friday , 23, August 2019

Smart homes are on the horizon, and we can get a glimpse of things to come by seeing what companies like Google and Amazon are planning and developing. We currently have a variety of connected devices we can buy, but we are just starting to see integrated household systems on the market.

There are convenience benefits to the consumer because this level of monitoring enables new services. When the information is uploaded to Amazon’s cloud based AI service, it can be combined with other data points to provide useful feedback like you forgot to lock the front door, you left the lights on, and so on.

Google has ambitious plans for smart homes, and has filed many patents related to smart home technologies. They own a company called Nest that makes smart, connected devices intended for home use. Google’s Nest line of products includes its signature smart thermostats and smoke detectors, but they also acquired a company called Dropcam and now offer cameras and camera enabled devices like doorbells with facial recognition built in.

Some Whirlpool and GE appliances have Nest integration as well. Amazon is aiming to compete in many of the same areas, with products like Amazon Key, a smart door lock and security camera system, and with Ring, its smart doorbell system with camera. Amazon’s voice recognition system will be built into many household devices.

Both companies plan to surveil inside and outside the home; outside products to be marketed as home security, and inside systems that will give us smart and convenient homes. Other companies have a foothold in this arena as well, including Apple, with more than 20 million smart TVs, and Microsoft with big plans for Cortana to drive home automation.

What could possibly go wrong?

A 2015 study by HP found that “100 percent of the studied devices used in home security contain significant vulnerabilities, including password security, encryption and authentication issues.” These home security devices are traditionally cameras and motion sensors, but increasingly are home appliances, televisions and toys.

Hackers go after weakest link in your network, which is likely to be an Internet of Things (IoT) device. IoT toys have been subverted, allowing hackers to listen to and watch children. Many smart TVs have security vulnerabilities, allowing hackers to remotely control the camera.

Many security alarm systems are easily hacked. The majority use legacy wireless protocols from 1990s that don’t encrypt or authenticate transmissions. They can be used to spy on you and have alarms suppressed. Nest thermostats have been hacked before. Nest Dropcam cameras have been hacked too, allowing hackers to watch video remotely, enable camera microphone, and inject fake video into the video stream.

We need to consider that this technology is error prone, which could lead to an accidental violation of your privacy. Google’s service, like Amazon’s, is a cloud based service, which means personal information is uploaded and from that point on is vulnerable to theft or sharing with marketing partners.

Devices that include microphones and cameras can be used as the basis to obtain warrants demanding that companies turn over the data. This data is stored and can be used, lost or stolen. Amazon says their products do not pose a privacy risk, but in 2018 a German man who requested his stored voice data accidentally got 1700 audio files recorded from another household.

There are serious security and privacy concerns around smart homes. They gather a lot of data to be smart and useful, and that gathering and storing and sharing of personal, private data is worrisome. There are smart buildings already, either retrofitted or freshly designed that have similar issues to resolve, but include new concerns because they aggregate data about larger groups of people. As we continue this series of posts next time, we’ll take a closer look at smarthome plans by Google, and consider the implications of those plans.