The Caveats of Owning Connected Smart Home Devices

Smart home devices represent a family of products that are expected altogether to reach a total market capitalization of $107 billion by 2023, with projections increasing year by year, a sign of a market that is growing — at least for now — in a very healthy manner. The unprecedented convenience of devices like Alexa and Google Home, smart washing machines, intelligent toasters, Nest thermostats, and other doohickeys around the house that can be controlled through the cloud had a predictable allure that transformed this family of devices into a force to be reckoned with. Despite the world of convenience offered by smart home equipment, there are still many caveats to them that must be discussed.

smarthome-hackers

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that there’s going to be some sort of apocalyptic event in which every home in the world using these devices will suddenly turn on its inhabitants on the whims of some hacker, but this isn’t very far from the truth.

Only two years ago trolls were using a baby monitor network to speak through some of the monitors, terrifying parents that used the service. Then, in March 2018, researchers at Ben Gurion University discovered that a simple Google search could exploit many more of these “smart” monitors.

Now, imagine hackers doing this to your smart TV, your home assistant, or anything else in the house. It’s entirely possible that a smart appliance could be used to start a fire remotely in someone’s house. In such cases, cybersecurity is more important than ever. Yet we’re still highly focused on the convenience these devices offer while overlooking this particular caveat.

smarthome-outage

Many of these smart home devices are connected to a network on the cloud. Some of them rely on their own cloud systems so heavily that most features would be rendered null at the most minor outage. If your Internet goes down, it’s the same story.

On May 17, 2018, the Nest network experienced such an outage, prompting engineers to scramble to fix the issue that caused millions of devices to just stop getting their data.

The exception to this would be devices that rely on cloud only for sync (kind of like some smartphone email apps and most desktop email clients), retaining most of the data in storage and polling the network only to see if there is more data to sync.

Nest kind of does this, which means that most devices were still physically usable after the outage. Still, people couldn’t access the remote features through their smartphones despite having Internet access on both endpoints. At best, this could be a nuisance. At worst, it could be very frustrating.

One good way to make sure that you minimize the effect of outages is to check the device’s whitepaper, manual, or any other reference documents and look for what it needs to sync.

smarthome-data

This may sound like a simple naysayer-esque argument, but having smart devices objectively compromises your privacy, even if security isn’t an issue. Using a normal “dumb” device doesn’t reveal much about you since it’s not sending data about its usage to a central server.

On one hand this data is very useful to companies since they can figure out cool new ways to improve their products. They’re able to enhance your experience by analyzing it. For example, if most people using a smart toaster set the dial to 5 by default, the manufacturer can interpret this as a signal that it should make its toaster a bit stronger. In the next model, the “3” on the dial can toast like the “5” did, providing more flexibility to those who want their toast extra-toasty.

On the other hand, if that data is leaked, everyone now knows how you like your toast. Sure, you might not mind the whole world knowing how you like your toast; you might even post that kind of information publicly on Facebook. But imagine if it was something more intimate, like keywords in a private conversation that you were having with your spouse in front of a smart home device equipped with a microphone. Things get a little creepier there.

This isn’t to say that smart home devices will bring about the apocalypse. A lot of people said that about social media, smartphones, and the like. But if you want to purchase them, you have to know what to expect — both the positives and the negatives.

Are you considering purchasing a smart home device? How would you deal with the privacy concerns? Tell us all about it in a comment!

One comment

  1. In the pat 12 months, we’ve had 4 instances when we had no electricity for more than 24 hours. Smartphones, tablets and laptops could be recharged using the car. However, any smart device that was permanently attached became a useless brick once its battery (if any) was discharged.

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