May 20, 2024
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Smart Homes & Security: Weighing the Vulnerabilities and Benefits of a Smart Home

Part II

Welcome back to Smart Homes & Security, a short series inspired by questions from our customers relating to smart-home security. Last week we explored one of the primary concerns of homeowners: hacking. We described how hacking affects smart-home owners, and what you can do to protect yourself from malicious attacks. Today let’s delve into the home’s physical security.

Smart locks, sensors and cameras, even smart smoke detectors, often battery-operated, all present new security concerns in your home. Smart locks, with a virtual key that is your phone, intuitively seem vulnerable, but when we take intuition and gut feeling out of the equation, you realize there are risks to both smart and regular locks.

“Old-fashioned” locks have the risk of physical break-ins, lock bumping, picking or drilling. There are also risks involved with lending your key to a friend, a housekeeper, a family member. Keys can be duplicated, circulated, lost, found, stolen. But smart locks present their own vulnerabilities: Someone can learn your code and hack into your system or the lock can run out of battery. But smart locks also control for the vulnerabilities that are common in standard locks and keys: You cannot lose your key, you are alerted immediately if there is any suspected tampering with the lock, smart locks have built-in alarms if a code is attempted too many times, you can assign one-time codes to visitors or family members or delivery people and a log is maintained of which codes were used and when.

The concern then moves away from the number of vectors into your home and turns into a question of big-picture security. Is my home safer with a smart lock than with a regular lock? Is my home more secure with cameras and sensors than without? You will never be able to avoid all security risks, but you have the chance to choose the risks with which you are comfortable. Don’t let the ambiguous discomfort of change dictate your decision. Run a risk analysis on every smart-home device you choose to install, from cameras to smoke detectors to A/V systems. Your smart-home installer should encourage you to think critically, to weigh the benefits and risks carefully and to know your options.

Which leads us to the next, and in our opinion most troubling, matter relating to current smart-home installations: your installer. In many high-end home-automation companies, the person you are letting into your home will have access to your entire system. Often the homeowner is locked out of his own IoT devices purportedly for security/convenience/efficiency purposes. First, know that you can have a smart home without being locked out of your own IoT devices. You can (and should!) be in complete control of your own home. This does not mean you’re on your own—your installer should be available for troubleshooting and support. But the control should be in your hands. Second, when you give a stranger complete access to your home, you have to wonder: Do they take appropriate security measures to keep your information safe and private? Do you trust them wholeheartedly to have access to your home, your cameras, your locks, your alarms? When you hire a home technology installer, ask for references and trust your gut.

Finally, it is impossible to write this piece without a heavy-hearted nod to a recent New York Times article titled “Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse.” The article details a frightening new form of domestic violence, whereby IoT devices are used by the abuser even once s/he has left the home, to terrify victims who say that “they felt they were going crazy.” Lights turn on and off, temperatures are cranked up to miserably high temperatures, locks open and close unexpectedly, music or television suddenly turns on at the highest volume in the middle of the night… Abusive spouses can take control of the home’s automated devices while victims often don’t even know of their existence, let alone have access to them.

Again, it is critical for you to trust your installer not just to protect your home but to be available for advice and help. Our advice, for all homes, is to encourage all family members to have their own access to their smart-home devices. If you, your spouse, your adult child or elderly parent who lives with you wants a tutorial of these apps, let your installer know and see to it that you are all familiar with the systems. You should not be concerned with wasting his time or sounding ignorant, it is his job to teach you to navigate your home technology.

We’ve spent quite some time discussing the risks of smart homes, one more concerning than the next. But we would be remiss not to remind readers that these risks have viable solutions, and that with the right installer and a personalized, mindful plan for your home, the benefits of a smart home can completely change your life. The added benefits of being able to remotely monitor and control activity in your home are immeasurable. The comfort and convenience of having a smart home, the energy-savings—these are just some of the benefits that in most cases will far outweigh any risks to which you are exposing yourself.

Remember that no matter what kind of home you have, smart or not, there is exposure and there is risk. It is up to you to ask yourself how much of a target you really are, and which risks you can handle best. Be wary, ask questions, but listen to the answers, too. Be critical and analytical but stay open-minded and flexible. Think creatively. And never assume that maintaining the status quo is the best way to protect yourself. Our world is changing. Quickly. Change with it. In the age of interconnected devices, security should absolutely be a top priority. And maybe smart homes are the answer after all.

By Efraim & Dvorah Vaynman


Efraim Vaynman owns a home-automation company, Automated Abode, dedicated to making smart homes accessible, affordable and efficient. Contact him at [email protected] or 973-619-9915. See his website at www.automatedabode.com

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