Just How Smart Are Integrated Home Security Systems?

June 9, 2016

11:00 am

This past Christmas, Samsung launched Smart Things, their new home security system. Based on an app and a hub, it allowed users to integrate almost any device in their house, from lights to locks, doors to drawers. The system can even “trigger the noise of loud barking dogs” if it detects an intruder.

These sorts of features are all well and good if devices like this were completely secure. Sadly, it would seem that digital security systems are as easy to break into as their lock-and-key counterparts. Given that Smart Things is controlled by a single app, which is accessed through a single PIN code, the likelihood of that code being hacked by a third party is extremely high. Likewise, external apps are being developed which can pick flaws in these systems which the designers did not even know existed.

Is there a truly safe solution?

While security companies are confident about the quality of the services they offer across the board, many are hesitant to claim the benefits of a newer system right off the bat. The London-based Carter Security recommend commercial grade wireless systems or a more traditional wired security alarm for those particularly concerned with their home security systems being compromised.

In addition to security systems, services such as alarm monitoring are commonly used to bolster intruder alarms and elevate the safety of a property. Banham provide three different levels of alarm monitoring with their burglar alarms, each of which involves a “keyholder” who can be selected by the customer, or officially appointed for the role by the company. Having security on hand to personally visit a site when the alarm goes off is useful, but this monitoring system is reliant on the kind of necessary human element that convenience-enhancing technology is trying to dispense with.

A sound alternative?

Voice-command devices like Amazon’s Echo – activated when the user says the name “Alexa” – have taken off in a major way, yet even these are riddled with flaws. A recent NPR story points out that, after mentioning the Echo in a previous news piece and saying “Alexa” in the broadcast, it automatically activated listeners’ Echo systems in their homes.

One company has taken a similar sonic approach to home security – minus the voice activation, of course. The Cocoon system registers low-frequency sounds out of the range of human hearing, to develop a “sound picture” of a home. Linked to any residents’ smartphones, it knows when they are out of the house thanks to GPS, then alerts the owner to any changes to the regular order of things within the home.

Picking holes in the The Internet of Things

Gizmodo recently pointed out that the fundamental flaw with integrated systems is “over-privilege”. By giving Smart Things access to so many discrete apps, one hack can open up your entire house to someone who shouldn’t have access to it. Even the use of GPS in apps like Twitter and Foursquare is a direct risk, as highlighted by Please Rob Me. The simple site acts as a Twitter search service, pointing out that “the danger is publicly telling people where you are…because it leaves one place you're definitely not…home.” In doing this, the site aims to demonstrate how easily-accessible location information is, and the ways this openly shared data can be used for nefarious purposes.

It makes sense that companies such as Samsung are eager to promote Smart Things as a one-stop online solution to home security. Although exactly how these products are tested remains under wraps, it still shouldn’t fall to the customer to be the guinea pig as more flaws are uncovered.

The Internet of Things is threatening to revolutionize domestic life at an unimaginable speed, so it’s understandable that there are still unanticipated bugs to be identified and fixed. Yet these are people’s homes – and lives – at stake, and consumers would be forgiven for prioritizing safety over technology.

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Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.