Feb 21

How Much of Home Automation Is Actually, Really Useful?

“Alexa, please close the drapes.”

*Alexa walks to the window and closes the drapes.

“Alexa, please make coffee.”

“Go get your own damn coffee John, I keep having to tell you I’m your roommate, not a machine.”

Everybody who’s into tech is still going ga-ga about The Smart Future, but is home automation really something that can make life easier? Does it actually do that much that we can’t do by taking a few dozen steps and flicking a switch? In this article we look at only two aspects to this question, one with an upside, the other with a potentially serious downside.

Does Automation Raise a House’s Value?

Some newly built houses advertise a Tesla charging port in the garage and the necessary infrastructure for making it a smart home as standard, asking a higher price accordingly. This is probably good business sense from the developer’s point of view: things like recessed wiring conduits and hidden speakers are easy to install while first erecting a structure but hard to add on later, so they can charge much more than it costs to build these things in from the start. Can you improve the market valuation of an existing house in this way?

The short answer is that you will never recoup your investment in this way; gadgets always go down in value, never up. Another thing to keep in mind is that all home automation devices don’t really talk to each other, sometimes as a deliberate decision by their manufacturers. If you are selling a smart home running on one platform but buyers prefer another, what you might have thought was a $10,000 selling point really amounts to only the wiring in the walls and a couple of peripherals.

It’s also worthwhile to remember that the technology world is fickle and today’s market leader might be tomorrow’s pariah: who still has a Nokia phone, or remembers how Apple nearly went broke in 1997?

Hacking and the Internet of Things

Have you ever heard of Shodan? Well, it’s like Google, but instead of searching for web pages, it scans the net for devices like webcams, routers and – yes – home automation controllers.

This means that it’s possible (at least in theory) for a hacker to take over any smart device in your home: run your air conditioner at full blast during the 2 weeks you’re on vacation, watch you on your own security cameras, instruct your espresso machine to make 1,000 cups…

The good news is that you don’t have to be hack-proof, only a more difficult target than the next IP address. Many people never change the default passwords on their devices, which can easily be found by anyone in the manufacturer’s documentation. Doing this will often be sufficient to protect you. Also, remember that many devices have a user as well as a maintenance (admin) password.

How Secure Is Your Router?

If the words “of course” or “uhmm” formed any part of your answer, and you don’t know what an initialization vector is, do please read on.

To state the obvious, if trusted devices are running on a trusted network but the network has been compromised, the system as a whole is not trustworthy. Assuming that you’ve at least changed the default passwords on all of these and installed basic security software on whatever device you use to control your house, the next thing to consider is the central node of your network: the wi-fi router. Even some IT professionals don’t know how vulnerable this component can be.

Although only a few companies worldwide manufacture the silicon chips that can drive a router, the software for each model is written by whichever company puts these chips together in a way that works. Now, the router market is very competitive, so bringing products to market as quickly as possible is more of a priority than security.

The result is that security loopholes are constantly being discovered, leaving you exposed to hacking even if you’re protected in other respects. These vulnerabilities are fixed (eventually) with software patches, but many routers don’t update their firmware automatically and most users don’t know how important it is to do this by hand. In fact, some people even recommend using third-party firmware, although this seems likely to cause more problems than it solves.

In any case, when browsing a website intended to help you choose devices on which your digital and physical security rely, hackproofing should be at the forefront of your mind.