At our last KBDN seminar this year, I did my usual tech talk where I show designers all about smart home technology and how it can be used in kitchens and bathrooms. In this presentation, I show how you can control many aspects of your house from your smartphone, and how you can get these smart appliances to talk to each other.
Afterwards, a designer came up to me and asked about the security of these devices. Her first question was about smart locks. She asked if you have a smart lock that is connected to the internet, what’s to stop someone from hacking it and being able to unlock your house? Specifically, she asked what my opinion was, and whether or not as a designer it’s wise to recommend internet-connected technology in the home.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and there’s no one answer. This designer and I did talk through a lot of the pros and cons of internet-connected devices. For this column, I thought I’d do the same. Below I’m going to make an argument both for and against connecting your home to the internet. As with nearly every decision that goes into each kitchen, it’s up to you, the designer, to weigh the options and decide what’s best for your client.
Before we can get into a discussion as to why you would not use smart home devices, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how they work and why security is a concern.
Let’s say you have a smart thermostat. First and foremost, a thermostat controls the heat and air conditioning in your home. A “smart” one is connected to the internet. This means that the device can learn what the weather is outside from weather sources and adjust its behavior accordingly. It also can obey commands you send to it from literally anywhere in the world.
Let’s say you’re at work and you want to turn up the heat in your house for when you get home. You pull out your phone and turn it up. That request gets sent to a server that is owned and controlled by the maker of your thermostat, and then from there to the thermostat itself. In some cases, that request (and other information) is sent to third party companies like Amazon that run back-end infrastructure for many services like this.
Before this gets too technical (and boring!), let’s think of this example of sending a letter. When you send a letter, you’re actually sending a lot of personal information to the recipient. Not only are you sending your name and address, but also the contents of the letter and even your fingerprints on that letter.
This same information exchange happens in controlling that thermostat. Not only are you sending the number “72º F” to the thermostat, but your message also contains a fingerprint of your device, and the “to” and “from” digital address of your phone and your house.
This process of sending all of that information across the internet is inherently less safe than having a “dumb” thermostat that only can be controlled in person.
Let’s say you have a different device, perhaps a security camera that is connected to the internet. The advantage of these devices is that they record everything that you have them pointed at. They can make those recordings and provide a live stream of what the camera is seeing to you anywhere in the world, as long as you have an internet connection. The potential security risk of these types of cloud storage cameras versus a completely offline closed circuit TV system is that the data is sent not only to you, but through other third-party storage companies.
You may have seen advertised lately smart speakers that are made by Amazon and Google. These are speakers that you are encouraged to place in your house. They are backed with an internet-connected artificial intelligence. This means you can say aloud, “Hey Alexa, what’s the weather going to be like this week?” And she’ll respond with a weather summary.
These devices have arrays of microphones that are listening all the time for that magic “wake word.” In Amazon’s case, it’s “Alexa” and in the Google Home’s case, it’s “Hey Google.” These devices aren’t supposed to hear anything until you say the magic word. Google recently shipped a device that had a hardware fault that caused the device to be listening all the time, and sending that information to Google (Google did acknowledge the hardware error and deleted all of the recordings).
The potential failure point of all of these devices is their connection to the internet. Far more people are handling your data in different places when using devices like this. Even if every manufacturer and entity handling the data on these devices has the best of intentions, things can happen to expose that data to the public. Just this year we had a massive Equifax data breach.
Now that I’ve gotten all of the doom and gloom out of the way, let’s talk about some of the advantages that these devices can offer.
There are many obvious advantages to smart home devices. You can use a smart thermostat to stay more comfortable when you’re home, and save energy when you’re not. Security cameras can help make sure that your home is secure. Smart appliances can be safer and help you cook better food.
I think as designers we can leverage these devices in ways that far outweigh the obvious benefits. Imagine you’re working on a home for an older client. This is going to be an aging-in-place situation. Perhaps there are some siblings that want to make sure that their older parents are safe, but they don’t want to create a space that feels like a hospital. Aside from the basic aging-in-place design touches that a designer would do, there’s a great opportunity here to leverage technology to make the experience better.
A smart speaker can be used to control things like lights in, and out of, the home. This could help someone with mobility issues not only control the lights around them, but also outside if they didn’t feel secure. Smart speakers can answer questions with your voice that you’d normally have to type into a computer. This could allow basic internet access for someone with difficulty typing. They can also act as telephones, so one could say, “Call my daughter,” and a call is placed on a nice clear speaker.
Smart motion sensors can be used to turn lights on at night, and alert caregivers that motion is happening in the home. This could be used to alert a caregiver that someone has gotten out of the bed in the morning in a way that doesn’t require the use of a camera. If there’s no movement, the caregiver could check in to see if everything’s okay.
Smart thermostats can be used to monitor the health of heating and cooling units in the home, and allow a caregiver to schedule maintenance and repairs.
Outside cameras could be used for basic security, but also to make sure that sidewalks and driveways are clear of debris and snow.
Smart locks could be set so that the home automatically locks at night, and can be unlocked remotely by a caregiver if the residents lock themselves out or lose their keys.
These are just a few examples of how some of these devices can be configured in ways that are beyond their basic utility.
Hacks rarely do happen on connected smart home devices, but being on the internet means the chance of that happening is more than zero. Ask yourself for each client, ‘What’s more important: The tiny risk of a hack or the added convenience and safety that these devices can offer?’ In the case of a celebrity or a government official, an offline system may be prudent. For the rest of us, it’s my belief that the benefits can far outweigh the risks. It’s up you to think through all the pros and cons, and make an informed decision. I hope this column helps you think through these issues. ▪
Eric Schimelpfenig, AKBD, has been an innovator in design and 3-D technology for many years. He has worked with KraftMaid, Google, Masco and many other prominent companies in the kitchen and bath industry teaching Google Sketchup, speaking about technology and writing about innovations in technology.