Home automation and ‘Internet of things’ is great — but think about privacy and security

This article is adapted from one that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Your home is getting smarter and more connected, which is mostly a good thing. But, as we start to connect our homes to the “Internet of Things,” we need to be aware of the privacy. security and safety implications.

Although technically the term “home automation” could apply to any labor-saving device, including dishwashers and washing machines, in today’s world it means remote control and monitoring of home appliances, lights, doors, security and entertainment systems.

A key to all of this is the proliferation of low-cost sensors that can detect everything from movement, temperature or moisture on an object and  biological changes if they’re focused on people, plants or animals.  In her opening remarks at a November, 2013 Internet of Things workshop, FTC chair Edith Ramirez estimated that “there are already 3.5 billion such sensors and some experts expect the number to increase to trillions within the next decade.”

For example, SmartThings sells a $99 hub that connects devices to the Internet so that they can be controlled from your smartphone via a cloud-based service. They also sell a $49 Multi Sensor that can detect the temperature and when “things” (such as doors, drawers or even objects) are opened, closed, moved or change angles. You could place the sensor near your front door to know if it’s been opened, which not only helps detect an intruder, but also can let a working parent know that their kid is home from school. The software can even be used to send you an alert if the child hasn’t come home by a certain time. You could also use it to monitor if windows have been opened or if someone left the garage door open.

The company’s website has an amusing video showing how a customer uses his voice to turn on the coffee pot. You can also program the doors to lock as soon as you leave the house or turn on the air conditioner from work so the house is cool when you get home.

There is almost no end to what you can automate using technologies not just from SmartThings, but also from Belkin, Wink (sold at Home Depot) and other companies. Nest, which was purchased by Google this year for $3.2 billion, currently, makes a “smart” thermostat and smoke and carbon dioxide detector that you can control with your voice or your smartphone. The company hasn’t announced other products but, based on Nest CEO Tony Fadell’s presentation at the Re/code conference last month, it’s pretty clear that they have ambitious plans.

Apple, too, is jumping into home automation. Its iPhone, iPad and even its iPod touch media player have long been used as controllers for other companies’ home automation products. Just about every company in this space has an iOS app along with an Android app to control its products. But at its Worldwide Developers Conference conference last month, Apple announced Home Kit, which is a set of tools to help developers create home automation apps for Apple devices. The technology allows for developers to create apps that share customer data with apps from other developers, assuming it’s OK with the customer.

That means any Home Kit app can interact with any other compatible Home Kit device in your home. So your coffee pot and your dishwasher could carry on a conversation, even if they are controlled by devices from different companies. That begs the question of what they would talk about (Maybe the coffee maker would tell the dishwasher that it’s time to wash your coffee cup).

Privacy and security issues

Privacy advocates have expressed concern about Google having access to information collected by Nest devices in people’s homes. But in a blog posted at the time of the acquisition, Nest implied that it would never share data with the rest of Google. “Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services,” the blog said. “We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

Still, whether the technology is from Google or any other company, connecting our homes to the so-called “Internet of things” does raise some interesting privacy and security issues.

If you install a system like this, be aware of the risk — however small — of unauthorized access. If you can see when your kids get home from school, so could a hacker who got hold of your password or figured out how to bypass the system’s security. Make sure you are dealing with a reliable company with good security practices. There is no such thing as “perfect” security, but it’s worth inquiring about how the company secures its products but at the device level in your home, at the network level between your home and its servers and in “the cloud” where it stores data about your home.

Most of us don’t read privacy policies, but 360Chestnut, a company that sells this technology, says that you should make an exception when it comes to home automation. “All of these products collect large amounts of data, some personal data some not so personal, but the question then becomes who owns this information? This is why it becomes very important to read each company’s privacy policy,” the company posted on its blog.

In a commentary on Information Week’s government website, industry leaders Steven Kester of Advanced Micro Device’s and  Stephen Pattison from ARM. argued that “data, and privacy is a shared responsibility” and that industry collaboration — not competition — will accelerate broader ecosystem support by aligning current computing-industry standards with the world’s most widely adopted security ecosystem.”

I am excited about the developments in home automation and look forward to installing some relatively simple but useful things, like a garage door monitor and electronic house locks that let you lock and unlock the door from a phone or program a code to let workers into the house during a specific period of time.

But there are still some tasks that will require old-fashioned manual labor for the foreseeable future. We have machines to wash and dry our dishes and clothes but, until robots get a lot better, it still takes a human to clear the table, put away the dishes and fold clean laundry. And, just as with technology, human too are subject to security flaws as my wife reminded me one day when I forgot to lock our front door.

 

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