It can take a new technology decades to fully mature into a product that’s reliable and genuinely useful. Computers and mobile phones have arguably reached that point, but the smart home is barely a teenager by comparison, and as it starts to go through puberty it’s revealing a troubling, rebellious side.
The idea of a home that’s more than just a place to sleep and store all your stuff has been a tantalising subject for science fiction writers and futurists for decades. Movies like Back to the Future Part II promised a future where your house would recognise and greet you as you walked in the front door, turning on lights, automatically adjusting the temperature to your liking, and switching the TV to your favourite show(s). TV series like Star Trek introduced us to the idea of voice-activated computer assistants that could run an entire space ship from the Captain’s chair, while The Jetsons revealed a future where robots and machines would take care of all our strenuous labour. A smart home wasn’t to be feared, it was something to look forward to.
The reality, however, hasn’t quite been as reliable, polished, or secure, as what we had hoped the smart home would be. One of the first companies to offer these intelligent upgrades was Insteon who, as far back as 2005, introduced a way for a home’s lights, thermostat, motion sensors, and even appliances to all communicate with a central control system allowing homeowners to remotely operate, monitor, and even automate the various devices throughout their home. I can remember a decade ago being fascinated that a family member was able to simply call their home from a cellular phone and turn up the thermostat before arriving, and I was convinced that the future promised by The Jetsons was finally here.
But as these smart home systems started to adopt internet connectivity, allowing easy access through smartphone apps and web portals from anywhere on Earth, deeply concerning problems started to arise. In 2013, Forbes’ Kashmir Hill demonstrated that Insteon’s decision to make password protection optional for its users, as well as not protecting these portals from Google’s endless web crawling, allowed her to not only remotely control a stranger’s home, but glean a concerning level of private information, including addresses and even the names of children living there.
Eventually, security became a mandatory feature for smart home systems and devices, and it seemed like the future was back on track. But what followed was years and years of security concerns and breaches as more and more devices in the home got smart upgrades. It didn’t take long for security researchers, and hackers with less altruistic intentions, to discover other ways to compromise the smart home, including attacking the cloud servers that remotely monitor and facilitate automated interactions between IoT (internet of things) devices, and using phishing attempts to simply steal passwords and gain direct access to all the tech that’s supposed to make it easier to make a house safer.
The smart home itself isn’t necessarily a flawed idea, but the companies who’ve been creating these smart systems have prioritised convenience and endless feature updates over properly engineering and fundamentally securing their hardware. Being able to unlock your front door with a voice command when your hands are full feels like something straight out of Star Trek, but cutting corners to realise the future science fiction promised us is creating more problems than solutions.
Somehow, security is no longer the biggest concern when it comes to the infiltration of smart home devices. Privacy, or the lack of it, is now the most problematic side effect of the smart home’s rapid evolution. It’s been a concern ever since hackers and security researchers found ways to remotely access feeds from online security cameras, but it’s become an even bigger issue in recent years with the arrival of voice-controlled smart assistants.
Companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon promised that their microphone-equipped smart speakers would only be listening for specific activation commands before recording sounds and sending them off to the cloud to be processed by intelligent algorithms and voice recognition software. And that was enough of an assurance for consumers to fill their homes with these devices. It turned out to not exactly be true, however. A flaw was discovered with the wildly popular Google Home Mini that caused it to randomly record and upload audio to Google’s servers all on its own. And then it was discovered that Amazon was using actual people to listen in on recordings made through its Alexa smart assistant as the software on its servers couldn’t always recognise slang, accents, or other languages, which required human intervention. It wasn’t just a bunch of algorithms listening in on everything happening in your home.
Missteps over privacy are one thing; Google quickly remedied the problems with the Home Mini through a software update, while Amazon assured users that it prohibited human moderators from abusing the recordings they had access to. But Ring, a company purchased by Amazon last year for over $1 billion (£769 million), who started off by making video streaming smart doorbells that made it easy to see who was at your front door, decided that realising a dystopian surveillance state was more important than focusing on users’ privacy.
In addition to bugs that could potentially expose a home’s wifi password to hackers, earlier this year it was revealed that the company secretly partnered with hundreds of police departments across the country to make footage from its camera devices available to law enforcement. Ring users are still able to opt-out of allowing footage from their devices to be accessed by police through a special portal the company created exclusively for law enforcement, but what was originally pitched to consumers as a remotely accessible digital peephole has quickly become a massive surveillance tool with questionable security practices.
At this point we could simply abandon our smart home dreams altogether, but that would be like giving up on a teenager who makes some bad decisions as they struggle through puberty. Many of the decisions being made by the giant corporations driving the smart home revolution are staggeringly awful, but there are also lots of smaller companies pushing the technology forward that are genuinely trying to realise a vision of the future that doesn’t also turn these devices into the tools of an oppressive state. There’s no shortage of sci-fi writers and futurists who predicted that similar smart home technologies would potentially lead to a nightmarish dystopia, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like the only potential outcome of not wanting to climb out of bed in the morning to preheat my shower.