I’ve loved smart homes since I purchased my first Amazon Echo device (well, apart from when Alexa completely mishears me…!). I’ve since purchased a range of other smart devices, and pretty much every part of my house contains at least one smart home device – including my attic and detached garage!
It’s so easy to see a $10 smart plug or $15 Ring camera in the sale and buy yet another smart device, without actually stopping and thinking of some of the downsides of smart homes – their risks, how they can actually be dangerous, and more.
Hence I wanted to jot down 18 risks and dangers that your smart home may introduce.
I’ve unfortunately had a few emails recently from people whose neighbors have pointed smart cameras (such as Ring and Nest outdoor cameras) at their own house.
Whilst some neighbors can be great, some can be… wait, what’s the opposite of great? Oh right, terrible. I’ve had my fair share of terrible neighbors, especially when in University.
When a neighbor installs a smart camera pointing right at your front or back door, you immediately feel spied on and you lose all sense of privacy and security in your home. This is awful, especially since many smart cameras record audio by default.
In other words, a terrible neighbor could be spying and listening in on you. Whilst this was also possible before smart technology (with CCTV cameras), the fact that you can buy a $15 Ring camera as part of a bundle/sale means that it’s never been cheaper for bad neighbors to do things like this.
Amazon Echo’s smart speakers have a ‘drop in’ feature which allows you (or someone else with the app) to listen in on the microphone from any Echo device in your house. Whilst not much is said about the privacy aspect of this feature, Google Nest’s smart speakers don’t support drop-in which I find interesting.
The reason I’m flagging this feature up is that it can be abused. Whilst the Echo being dropped in on does make a small ‘pinging’ sound and also display a green circle (to alert people in the room that it’s being listened in on), the sound isn’t too loud.
In-fact, I just turned the volume of one of my Echos down to zero and whilst it does still make a sound when being dropped-in on, I wouldn’t be able to hear this sound if my TV was on.
That just leaves the green circle as a warning. But if the Echo is placed out of site (or hidden by a bunch of junk that has built up), someone could easily be listening on that Echo without you knowing it.
I should clarify at this point that only authorized people can drop in on your Echos, e.g. anyone with the Alexa account that’s logged into the Amazon account. However if a couple both have the Alexa app on their phones (which is quite common), and they then argue, one person could drop-in on an Echo and listen in on their partner – from anywhere in the world – potentially without being noticed.
This is my concern about the ‘drop in’ feature, and why I imagine that Google Nest don’t support it. If you do use this feature, just be sure that only authorized people have access to it – i.e. if you split up with your partner and they move out, make sure that you revoke their app access, such as by changing your Amazon password so they get logged out of their Alexa app.
A useful feature of your Echos is that (once enabled) you can say “Alexa, buy…” and the specified item will be ordered from Amazon, usually showing up the next day!
The downside of this is that your friends could prank you when over your house (“Alexa, buy 100 tins of dog food”!) or your kids could order things (“Alexa, buy the Playstation 5”). Yes you’ll receive a notification that a new order has been placed, but it’s still obviously not ideal!
This has the potential to waste you a lot of money, along with creating hassle if you overlook the order notification and the item turns up the following day!
Thankfully you can restrict purchases either to specific voice matches, or setup a purchase PIN. But it’s definitely a dangerous feature if these aren’t set up!
Imagine that you’ve spent years buying more and more Dink smart devices, spending thousands of dollars in the process.
You now have loads of awesome Dink devices running, and you finally feel happy that your smart home is complete.
Then Dink turn round and say that you need to start paying each month, otherwise all your services will stop working.
“Wait, what? I’ve spend THOUSANDS of dollars and you’re basically cutting me off with no warning”, you yell?!
Well, this is essentially what happened to people who bought into the Wink ecosystem: they rolled out a mandatory subscription in 2020.
Heck, the same is true of the previously-popular IFTTT who basically announced that many user’s IFTTT setups would start costing them $9.99 before long:
I know that this can happen outside of smart homes too, but with a fully smart home not being cheap, you have to be careful that you don’t get caught out by investing loads of money in a company’s products who then turn round and ask you to pay each month.
Yes, sometimes the monthly amount might be low – but whose to say that they won’t start jacking it up each month?
Whilst I like my Ring doorbell and cameras, I dislike that by default, it records audio:
Whilst this isn’t too bad for a Ring Indoor Camera or one mounted outdoors in your own backyard, it’s not ideal for Ring’s Doorbell range because it will record the conversations of anyone passing by. This is especially true if you don’t have much of a front garden, meaning the conversations of passers by (on the sidewalk) could be clearly heard – and recorded – by the Ring Doorbell.
Whilst this isn’t dangerous for you as the owner of a Ring Doorbell, it is for your neighbors (if their private conversations are recorded). Plus if you are walking along and come near someone else’s Ring Doorbell, it’s then potentially dangerous for you as it could be recording your conversations.
Following on from my fourth point, the other risk with buying lots of smart devices – especially multiple products from the same company – is that the smart company could go bankrupt (making your device unmanageable), or simply stop supporting your version of the product – just like Sonos started doing with a number of their (expensive) older speakers.
This is a fundamental problem with any technology, of course, but it’s more pronounced with smart technology. A computer running Windows XP will still work, but when a smart company switched off the servers that power your specific devices, you essentially have an expensive electrical brick in your home.
This can be dangerous because you may have invested lots of money in particular smart products, resulting in wasted money down the road.
The problem with smart devices is that they need power. “Well, duh..!” I hear you say. Okay, yes it’s obvious – but the average homeowner is unlikely to rewire their house to have more wall outlets installed.
So what do they do? They turn to power strips. This is fine at first, but if you have a lot of smart devices, you could end up with more and more power strips.
The ESFI have said that improper use of extension cables and power strips leads to around 3,300 home fires each year, resulting in 50 deaths and many more injuries.
To avoid this risk, always be sure to follow the correct power loading for any power strips you use, and ideally use quality, surge protected strips wherever possible.
Finally, as I explore in point #17 below, some smart devices need to be hardwired into your house’s electrics. Whilst people should always hire an electrician to do this work if they’re unsure how to do it themselves, the fact that smart devices are often marketed as “simple to install” and “plug and play” half encourages people to try and install them themselves. This can also be a clear danger.
Did you know that when you walk past a Nest Cam IQ (even an Outdoor IQ one), your face gets scanned, analyzed and stored away in Google’s facial recognition database?
Yes, it’s true. That’s why a single American state has banned it (Illinois). Of course, there’s more than one state – and many countries around the world – with Nest IQ cameras running. Scanning – and storing – people’s faces in databases.
Whilst Google/Nest are happy with this feature and freely market it, this is a clear danger to privacy conscious people who may not want their faces scanned and popping up on people’s app asking “do you recognise this person?” (yep, it does that – if they say yes, you became a ‘familiar face’).
A worrying story hit the internet in December 2019, whereby a couple’s Ring camera was ‘hacked’, allowing the hacker to view – and talk to – the couple’s children playing in the nursery. Ugh!
This is very creepy, and unfortunately all smart cameras have the potential to be hacked.
Of course, the key word there is ‘potential‘: there’s no reason why your smart camera will be hacked if you follow recommended security practices.
But something as simple as re-using the same password on multiple websites can be all it takes to have your smart cameras ‘hacked’. And this is quite common: 52% of people re-use their passwords, according to Google.
It wasn’t so bad when some people had CCTV cameras dotted around their property: they weren’t internet-connected, so couldn’t really be hacked. But the explosion of cheap consumer electronic devices and $15 Ring cameras (in the sale) mean that more and more people have smart, internet-connected cameras dotted around their home – a potential danger.
One of the things I love is being able to control my fire TV with my voice. Or automatically putting four side lamps on in the evening with a pre-set routine.
But one thing I don’t love is looking at my Fitbit stats and seeing that I’m often not active enough. Getting up for the TV remote and going around my house turning lights on/off is actually a good thing for my physical wellbeing.
Relying on smart home technology subtly takes that option away from us. Yes we still have a choice to get up and move around more, but a more sedentary lifestyle can creep up on us bit by bit when our convenience levels rise.
The health risks of being a couch potato are huge (I won’t list them here), so smart homes have a subtle yet dangerous risk attached with them.
Following on from the above, do you ever hate hearing someone ask “What’s 20% off that price?” and then seeing a smartphone get pulled out?
…what do you mean that you do this yourself?! Fine, I’ll admit that I do this too sometimes – and I have a math degree!
Being able to ask Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri to do basic calculations and also get answers from the web is really convenient, but it’s also potentially a bad/dangerous thing because it can stop people thinking for themselves (academics are still debating whether this is truly an issue or not though).
Whilst all smart speakers have explicit music and content filters, sometimes this option isn’t obvious or it’s turned off by default.
What this means is that members of your household can play explicit songs from the smart speakers, along with explicit videos via the Echo Show or Nest Hub.
This is another clear danger for smart home technology, since it makes it easier for profanity and explicit content to be accessed. Thankfully this can be filtered out by turning on the “Profanity Filter” or “Explicit Filter” in your app’s settings:
In my case, this option was OFF by default (meaning that if I had older children, they could request explicit content), but some people report that theirs was turned ON by default. If this is a concern to you, be sure to check your app’s settings.
A big selling point of smart technology is that it’s all controllable via ‘the cloud’. In other words, you can access your smart cameras from anywhere due to ‘the cloud’. You can change your smart thermostat’s temperature whilst driving home from the airport, again via ‘the cloud’.
But what exactly is ‘the cloud’? Well, it’s just a name for a set of technologies that make it easier for software to run anywhere in the world and communication easily with other software.
What this also means, however, is that personal data that your smart devices collect might be sent off to other countries, or other companies. This could be dangerous.
Whilst you may think (or hope!) that I’m scare-mongering, a reputable academic study concluded that almost 58% of American ‘internet of things’ devices sent internet traffic off to other companies (and/or support companies), and 84% of UK devices (and 56% of American devices) send data outside of the country.
This might all be innocent, but Kinsa’s smart thermostat got into some hot water in a couple of years ago for selling (anonymized) data to advertisers – resulting in targetted ads for disinfectant wipes.
In short, you can never truly know where your internet-connected devices are sending data to. All you can do is do some research, only buy from reputable companies (yes, that $4 no-name smart plug on Amazon may not be a good idea to buy!) and minimize how much personal information you hand over to smart companies.
Whilst many modern smart devices are fairly reliable, this wasn’t always the case: the Nest Thermostat had a number of issues in the early days that left people unable to crank up the heating in their home.
This shows a big danger with smart technology: there’s often no fallback. Some smart door locks don’t have a backup key system. Your smart thermostat is wired into your system, replacing your old thermostat unit (hence meaning no backup). Your smart doorbell may not ring if the WiFi is playing up.
Big companies will always plan for the best and worst cases, and have various redundant (backup) systems in place for their key systems. But the average household naturally won’t do this.
Therefore I’d suggest that you think carefully before replacing something with a smart device, especially when it’s hardwired in. Will everything be fine if that particular device fails?
A smart doorbell that doesn’t ring if the WiFi is dodgy isn’t too bad (people can just knock the front door). But not being able to control your house’s heating? That’s not acceptable.
On a similar point, if all your lights (and/or light switches) are smart, what happens if they fail due to a software bug or a ‘cloud’ service going down somewhere?
This could mean that if you get woken up in the middle of the night to a crashing sound, you try turning the lights on but you can’t – they stay off. Yes there’s usually a way of overriding this (by flipping the switch on/off four times, for example), but if you need to investigate something urgently, you don’t want smart lighting to fail you.
Whilst I thankfully haven’t heard of this particular scenario happening to people, I have heard of people’s smart bulbs being un-manageable after a power outage or brownout.
As with my point above, I’d always suggest that you have a backup. This might mean having some ordinary bulbs around your house, or having a torch nearby.
Online shopping can actually be addicting, affecting between 5-8% of Americans. Whilst this can apply to all types of online shopping, one of the issues I’ve seen myself with smart technology is that it’s so easy to buy just one more smart device.
I purchased a Hue Bridge and four White Ambiance bulbs, but then started thinking “actually I wish I had some full color bulbs instead”. I also have five Echo devices and I can already think of 2 more places to put an Echo (3, actually: but I only need 2..!)
When there’s a sale on and smart products are selling for a big discount, it’s easy to buy a lot – but be cautious that your hunting for a bargain isn’t part of a wider shopping addiction.
What do smart doorbells, thermostats and switches all have in common (apart from the fact that they’re internet connected, of course!)? Well, they all need to be hardwired into your house’s electrics.
A hardwired smart doorbell usually requires a transformer to be installed, a smart thermostat also requires wiring in, as does a smart switch since it replaces your existing wall switch.
Whilst you should always hire an electrician if you’re not confident to do this yourself, it’s tempting to try and install these smart devices yourself – especially since they’re usually marketed as “easy to install” or “easy DIY”.
This can be really dangerous if you’re not 100% competent to do the work yourself. If in doubt, hire someone in.
Smart devices are great… other than the fact that to work, they nearly always store some sort of personal data on the device.
For example, a smart lightbulb may store the WiFi password on it (so that it can connect to the WiFi password), or a smart thermostat may store information relating to your local area (maybe your actual address?) and desired heating schedules.
Whilst this might not seem like an issue, if you just throw the device out in the trash, it can be recovered and these personal details can be read. This guide talks through how people’s WiFi details (including the password) were taken from a LIFX bulb.
This presents a clear danger, because you may innocently dispose of an old smart device thinking that all the data is just “in the cloud”, but it’ll almost certainly store data on the device too.