The Thinker

Don’t let your house get too smart

At the Home Depot today I was looking at light bulbs. LED lights are now as cheap as compact fluorescent lights were some years ago, which is great because they use minimal energy and last for decades. Most of them come with features. I bought a LED bulb for a lamp I was buying that changes color. Each time you turn it on the color changes subtly. There were many variations of dimmable LED lights; many variations on color changing LED lights and one bulb that for about $15 had a Wifi connection. It was that last one that gave me pause: an intelligent light bulb? Apparently yes and you can use it with various home security systems to program the times you want it on and off, and even control it with a smartphone app.

As a gadget guy and a retiree with plenty of time on his hands, I like the idea of turning my home into a smart house. I even like the idea of appliances like Amazon’s Alexa where you can say something like, “Alexa, what’s the temperature now?” and it will tell you. I tried this device when I was in Michigan last month visiting my aunt. She has Alexa but all she does with it is tell it to play music and to stop playing music. So 99% of the time it streams innocuous piano much. However, when I asked it, it told me the temperature outside easily enough.

I like the idea of being half a world away and having remote cameras show me that my cats are doing okay and something telling me that the furnace has died. Our furnace igniter did actually die while we were in Europe. Thankfully we had a house sitter who took charge of the situation, which of course happened inconveniently during a blizzard. She got it fixed. However, a smart house system could have let me know there was a problem and ping me with a text message or email.

I don’t seem to be in a hurry to get an Alexa or to make my home smarter. Frankly, the Alexa device scares me. Alexa and Google Home are apparently very good at listening surreptitiously. I suspect if my wife and I were arguing it would pick that up. Perhaps I would get targeted ads from for divorce lawyers afterward. For me, Alexa and similar appliances cross a line I don’t want crossed: letting a company or potentially anyone know more about me than I want to give out, which is already plenty. That’s why we bought a VPN. Given that I am rarely more than a dozen feet from a computing device, there is little impetus to make my life that much more convenient.

I am more concerned about hackers than I am worrying what Amazon or Google is learning about me when I install one of these smart devices. A thief could potentially remotely turn off a smart front porch light bulb. I notice that many doors now come with locks that can be unlocked remotely. This also concerns me. If I lose my key I might not be able to get into my house without a locksmith. But a house that can be unlocked electronically potentially allows anyone with the right skills and intent to let themselves in.

And that’s precisely what we are doing in principle by creating smart houses. We’re entrusting a wireless technology to be absolutely secure when it isn’t and likely won’t ever be secure. There are too many backdoors including the most vulnerable ones: our own smart devices, which keep the electronic keys to these devices. So to the extent I want my house to be smart, I mostly want it to inform me about events only.

So yes, please tell me if the furnace or AC isn’t working. Tell me if a window is not secured when it should be. It can phone the cops if it suspects a burglary has happened when I am not at home. I don’t want a device that silently listens to my yammer and keeps notes. I only want to be able to remotely control devices that add security, not take it away. I don’t want to be able to unlock my doors remotely, but I might want the ability to lock them remotely.

Internet security is something of an oxymoron. You can’t trust it completely. However you can trust hardware devices that can only be controlled manually. If all my smart appliances were wired to a central switchboard, I would trust that. For the same reason, I trust my circuit breaker box. I can fully understand it and since it’s a mechanical device it cannot be controlled remotely. Since data can be transferred over power lines, smart devices could use them for communications instead of Wifi networks. All would report over the power line to the smart device, perhaps in the basement that controlled the smart house. The device would have physical switches that you could turn on and off if you wanted to allow remote access to various smart devices. It would also need some hardware to ensure that data could not accidentally be sent to the power company.

We may get such a solution at some point. Right now though no one seems to be thinking this through adequately, which is why I will very selectively make my house smart, if I allow it at all.

 

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