If this question has never crossed your mind – congratulations, now here’s a new fear! On the other hand, if you have thought about it, well then, you’re probably having an ‘I knew it!’ moment and are going to find this particularly interesting.
When we think of our smart devices spying on us, the most likely culprits that come to mind are smart cameras and our AI assistants (think Alexa, Siri, Bixby, etc). They’ve got cameras, microphones they can ‘listen’ to us with – the whole bit. But lights? They turn on. They turn off. They change color and brightness, and that pretty much sums up what they do. So how can a light spy on you?
Well, conspiracy theorists delight as we take a look at if it’s even possible for your lights to spy on you. If it is possible we’ll see how, as well as how you can tell if your lights are spying on you.
How Smart LED Bulbs and Light Strips Work
Aside from some of the more intricate smart lighting systems, such as Nanoleaf, there really isn’t any extremely fancy science to smart lighting – they are just LEDs. They turn on. They turn off. They change color. And if you’re lucky, they do some fancy flashing light tricks for parties, your entertainment system, and whatnot.
When connected to a smart home hub, or even their respective apps, you have even more options. One such option is the ability to program your smart lighting to come on at specified times. Other options include motion sensing and even voice commands to get your lights to do what you want them to, when you want them to do it.
Smart lighting in truth is actually very convenient, especially if you’re away from home for work or vacation. It can help you deter thieves by having the lights come on and off to make it look like someone is home. Smart lighting can also light your pathway so you don’t come home to a dark walkway or house.
Smart lights use a variety of wireless communication protocols, the most popular being Wi-Fi, Zigbee, and Bluetooth. By means of your respective light’s app (Hue, Alexa, Ring, etc.) and smart home hub (if you use one), they transmit signals wirelessly that tell the lights what to do.
But could these lights be doing more than performing their basic functions? Could they be transmitting your personal information to outside sources?
Are they spying on us?
Well, not exactly. Though our smart lights may not be spying on us in the traditional sense – such as watching and listening in on our lives, they could be in other ways.
Consider the example of search engines. When you research something – let’s take sofa sets, for example, it seems like literally seconds after you’ve searched for sofa sets, your social media timelines, and even the ads sent to your email are flooded with ads related to sofa sets and furniture stores. Search engines continuously monitor algorithms and ‘spy’ on our search history in order to offer us things they think we want to buy, which in turn helps companies direct their ads to the right people.
Apply this same principle to our smart lights. For example, if you connect your lights to a smart home hub, like Alexa, you may start seeing suggestions from your Alexa app as to how to use your lights. Alexa may even detect a pattern of how you use your lights and use that to suggest routines.
The manufacturer of the smart lights may even send you emails suggesting other products according to the way you use your lights.
But take comfort, unless bought specifically for that purpose, smart home lights typically don’t have cameras or microphones by which to spy on you.
Can smart lights even be used to spy on us?
The short answer is yes – but it would be at great cost to the one doing the spying.
In one experiment, it was shown that it’s technically possible to spy on a househould’s conversations by spying on an LED light bulb’s vibrations… as long as conversations were held at high decibels (a level that most of us don’t normally speak, unless you have a particularly loud voice). Even this came at a high price tag, requiring over $400 of monitoring equipment.
But that’s not the biggest risk. Some light bulbs can contain hidden cameras, and the idea of hidden cameras being incorporated into any kind of lighting – but especially in public settings where security is of utmost importance – is quite concerning. Think banks, government offices, airports, and train stations. There’s so much going on in these places, not to mention people of all walks of life coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
To that end, the powers-that-be have to make sure that every measure possible is taken to avoid serious incidences and potential threats. They invest thousands of dollars to incorporate CCTV and audio-capturing technology in these areas, to catch dubious conversations that could lead to dangerous situations later.
Why do many smart lights require Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth to be on?
Have you ever noticed that some smart home apps seem to require a bunch of permissions – such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and/or GPS (location) too? Why is this?
One reason is for ease of control. While there are some varieties of smart lighting that give you the ability to just use a remote control (especially on the cheaper end), this may not be ideal if you’re in another room, or not home at all.
By connecting to Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth, you gain the ability to control your lights via your smartphone or tablet, no matter where you are. For example, this makes it possible for you to do such things as turn on pathway lighting minutes before you pull into your driveway.
Oftentimes you either control your lights via just Wi-Fi. Some manufacturers also require a temporary Bluetooth or GPS connection to be established in addition to Wi-Fi, but only for initial set-up. After that, you can disconnect from Bluetooth and only use Wi-Fi. They do this oftentimes so that in the event your Wi-Fi isn’t working, they can use Bluetooth as a backup way of communication.
But worry not, this is all standard and a smart home app simply requiring Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth is not unusual.
Departing from Wi-Fi for a second, some smart lights use only Bluetooth, such as Philips Hue’s line of Bluetooth lights. The range is more limited as you have to be within about 300 feet of the device in order to use Bluetooth, but some people feel more secure this way because it’s more of a local connection.
Still, others prefer Wi-Fi because they can control their lights no matter where they are. To many, the benefits outweigh the potential, yet minuscule, risks.
Nowadays there are smart bulbs that are sold with integrated hidden cameras. However, this is often indicated on the packaging. If you’re purchasing a smart bulb or smart lighting strips solely for the purpose of lighting your home, it’s highly unlikely there are any hidden cameras involved. But if you’re curious to tell if maybe there is one, there are a couple of ways to tell.
First off, most cameras have infrared lights. These lights are needed especially to capture footage in low or difficult lighting conditions. These lights usually emit red or green tints. To tell if your bulb has one, turn off the light. This works particularly well in a dark room.
Once you’ve turned off the light, take a closer look at the bulb to see if there are any lights being emitted from the center of the light bulb. If you see any lights on the inside, there’s an indication a camera is likely present.
Another way you can tell is by looking for reflective surfaces a.k.a. the camera lens, within the light bulb. You can use your phone’s flashlight function to see this even better. Turn the light off, then hold your phone up to the bulb and see if you notice anything inside reflecting back. This could indicate there’s a camera lens inside.
Still another indicator is a buzzing sound. Some devices react to each other’s radio frequencies, so if placed near each other, you’ll hear a slight humming sound. Beware though, this is not foolproof. You may get a slight buzzing sound simply because the smart light has its own radio frequency to communicate with lighting, so don’t automatically assume this means ‘they’re watching’!
The Verdict? Your Lights are (most likely) Safe
Though cameras inside of our smart LED bulbs isn’t entirely impossible, it is highly unlikely. The technology required to effectively spy on us from our smart home lights can be very costly, and not worth it for the average smart home manufacturer. Fortunately, if need be, there are ways to tell if your lights do have cameras in them.
The most common incidence of cameras inside of lights is in public places where security is deemed of utmost importance. But in our homes? It’s safe to say we can put the tinfoil hats away – we’re safe.