Easy living?

You get what you pay for with smart home devices, but some say they're nobody's friend

From finding shelter in caves, tents and huts, to making do in medieval villages and Dickensian metropolises, to taking it comparatively easy in modern suburbia, for millennia we have been crafting the dwellings we call home.

There have been constants: Most have a roof, a doorway and some capacity for getting and staying warm. There have been innovations, some that merit exclamation points: electricity, flush toilets, automatic dishwashers, automatic garage door openers, screened-in porches, hot tubs, towel warmers, wood-fired pizza ovens. It's a long list. What's next?

Some say the smart house. Already, computerized devices can set a mood with nuanced lighting and music; make coffee; add detergent to a load of laundry; tell you when your refrigerated food is nearing its use-by date; track the electricity your appliances use; and maintain a home's climate by opening and closing windows, raising and lowering shades, and controlling heating and cooling systems. It, too, is a long list, and it's growing.

Skeptics don't dispute that smart houses are here, but say they're not ready for prime time and, perhaps more important, that they're not for everyone. They're best suited, they say, for people who either have an informed understanding of internet technology or have the resources to hire people who do.

'Inviting a wire tap'

Launched in the 1970s, before hackers had arrived on the scene, the internet is blessed – and cursed – with a design that is open to both innovation and infiltration.

Infiltration by hackers is, of course, a big problem and serious enough to warrant concerns about privacy at home when you connect to the so-called internet of things smart appliances and other systems that can be controlled from a remote computer, including smart phones and tablets.

To use the internet of things you are required to connect your house to the internet, or "the cloud." But in making that connection, "you are very much inviting a wire tap," said Gennie Gebhart, a researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that defends digital privacy rights.

These smart devices collect data that is stored on servers that the device owners have very little control over, she said. This data has the potential to expose a person's habits, "painting a very revealing and intimate portrait of your life," she said.

Smart machines also accustom us to surveillance, she added. Given that they're governed by algorithms that track your behavior, you come to expect your appliances to be watching you and come to think it's normal for a machine to log your daily habits "in a place that, by law and social norms, is the most private and sacred space in your life," she said.

If you want to make a smart home a hobby and have the time and skills, "then maybe this is a great thing for you," Gebhart said. Smart devices can be of real benefit to people with disabilities, she added, but they've also been used for domestic abuse by former spouses who move out yet still have remote access.

"The perils of this technology, we are just starting to see the tip of the iceberg," Gebhart said. As a concept, "complexity is the enemy of security (and) the internet of things and smart-home devices are the picture of that concept," she said. "The complexity of securing smart-home devices remains an unsolved challenge."

Ease of use is key

Peter Carpenter, longtime Atherton resident and member of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District governing board, said he has five cameras outside his home and two inside, all of which he can access remotely.

Inside, Carpenter has 12 Echo devices Amazon's voice-activated digital servant. He said he uses Echo as an intercom, to answer general questions he poses, and to choose music. He had been using it to control the house lights, but said his wife objected because she could not override it – a bug, which is not uncommon with new products, he said.

He said he won't consider any new product that's not easy to use and that receives fewer than four stars in reviews. "It's always been buyer beware. If we behave in ways that make us vulnerable, then we have to accept the fact that that could have consequences," he said. "No matter what anybody tells you, you are vulnerable to hacking."

That vulnerability includes him, but he said he wonders who would bother. "What's the worst thing that could happen?" he asked. Hacked credit card? Banks and credit card companies absorb the losses. Identity theft? He's aware of it, but not particularly concerned, he said.

"Worst case," he said, "somebody could look at my Kindle (e-book reader) right now and see that I have 5,208 books on it, and look at what I'm reading. ... The question is: 'Do I care?' I am not an exceedingly private person. If I were, I would not be in public life."

Carpenter said he installs every device himself. "If I have to hire somebody, that's a signal to me that it's not plug-and-play," he said. "I worry that people invest too much in both money and trust in systems that have not been well-proven."

A Woodside man who invested some $623,000 in smart systems in building a new home of more than 7,000 square feet spoke with The Almanac on condition that he not be identified.

Among the notable features of the house: automated control of windows, lights, audio and video systems, and climate control for 10 different parts of the house.

In Woodside, he said, you need to build a house commensurate with the property value. "You're either going to go all-in or not. If you choose to go all-in, you are signing up for a big bill," he said.

He has an ongoing relationship with an expert who advised him on building his systems and monitors them remotely. This homeowner doesn't store sensitive data in the cloud. He uses encryption.

"Everything is alarmed," he said, adding that they have several dogs and cameras in the garages, all of which have manual doors.

"When everything works, it's wonderful," he said. "Has it proved to be ... resilient? Absolutely. I don't worry about hackers. There are much bigger things to worry about."

Worth doing?

John Richards, an architect and member of the Portola Valley Town Council, said he hasn't looked for architectural jobs that involve smart-home technology. "It's a moving target and changing pretty fast," he said.

Richards said he has a smart thermostat. "It's not really as smart as (it's) made out to be," he said. As for his smart irrigation system, "I turn that off a lot of the time because it's not very smart either," he said.

Dave Tanner, a member of the Woodside Town Council and a builder and general contractor, is also skeptical.

Smart devices get on the market before they're mature, Tanner said. "It's the future, but actually it's a disaster looking for a place to happen," he said. "It's the epitome of laziness. Why can't you get up and move a light switch?"

Smart interior climate control seems reasonable, he said, but "once you tie it in to the smart-home stuff and the smart-home stuff fouls up, then you have an issue. ... Somebody goes in and hacks your account and then what? It's not well-protected, and that's the part that gets to me. If your house shuts down, how are you going to operate it?"

Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District uses Echo though he noted that "the smartest device I have is my wife." She uses Echo for shopping lists and ordering music, he said.

They have not configured Echo to do more, citing vulnerability to hacking, he said. "I don't think it's that much of a heavy lift to come home and turn the heater on," he said. "Do I need to do that from my phone 10 minutes from my house?"

"We give up a lot more than we realize," he said, adding that he knows of people who at times sequester their smartphones and Echo devices. "If you start having machines that learn your habits, where does that lead? Is it the Trojan horse in our house?"

Risks and rewards

Menlo Park resident Aisling MacRunnels is the chief marketing officer at Redwood City-based Synack, a team of ethical hackers who monitor cybersecurity for corporate clients.

Via email, MacRunnels and Mikhail Sosonkin, a Synack ethical hacker, said the internet of things does have promise. The elderly can be both independent and within reach of immediate help in case of an accident. A smart refrigerator could suggest food for a balanced diet or pronounce the names of fruits in Chinese for kids in language immersion classes, they wrote.

But that same technology, if hacked, could be used for mischief. "If someone hacks into your smart lock, they could break into your house," they wrote. "If someone hacks your electrical outlets, they could control all of the devices connected to them. If they hack your security camera, they could spy on you.

"Homeowners should be very careful about the devices they deploy on their network and do the due diligence to ensure that the risks are manageable," they wrote. "At the moment, people (who) are not tech-savvy should avoid smart homes. Unfortunately, the state of affairs is that people (who) don't know how to properly disable or troubleshoot these devices (or set them up securely) will be at risk from someone who knows just a little more."

"The internet of things is still very much in its infancy and, frankly, it'll stay there for quite some time," they wrote. "Many devices are still kind of clunky to use and battery technology is not quite there to provide the 'turn it on and forget it' kind of usage. Lack of cyber hygiene is, sadly, not looking like a barrier to adoption at least, with a large number of consumers."

The devices will become cheaper, more disposable and more diverse, they wrote. "So, pick anything you thought had no business being connected to the internet and, in no time, it will get connected! Why does my toaster need to be connected to the internet? Well ... maybe I want my toast preferences to be managed by my iWatch (Apple Watch)! ... Every time you rely on one of these systems, you end up giving something up – but if it will end up being a boon for your life still remains to be seen."


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