How to Avoid the Dangers that Accompany Smart Home Connectivity

Now that personal data has become valuable currency for tech companies and advertisers, consumers are more and more concerned about the security of smart home devices.

Smart technology has the potential to make home life more convenient, comfortable, and efficient than ever — and the revolution has only just begun. There is, however, a dark side to home connectivity.

Laura Lyons learned this the hard way. A lazy Sunday afternoon with her family turned into a nightmare when a loud alert suddenly began blaring through the living room of her home, warning that a ballistic missile attack was imminent and that residents of Los Angeles, Chicago, and parts of Ohio were in the crosshairs. The sound, it turns out, was coming from her Nest home security camera. She and her family had been the victims of a third-party hack, which gave someone else access to the device’s optics and speaker system—probably as a result of a compromised password.

This incident and others like it have led to a wave of concerns from consumers, who worry that their home devices could be used to spy on them or even to hold them for ransom. While those scenarios are unlikely, consumers do have reason to be concerned about the security of smart home devices—especially now that personal data has become valuable currency for tech companies and advertisers. Recent events like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal show that privacy is not an unalienable right for consumers who decide to share sensitive information.

Weighing Your Options

For multi-housing executives evaluating smart home platforms, security should be a top priority. One of the first factors to consider is how those devices will connect to the internet (and each other). Your options will ostensibly boil down to cellular service or Wi-Fi. The latter is designed for speed rather than security, but it is notoriously unreliable (online videos that pixelate are dropped data packets). About 43 percent of households report experiencing an internet outage once a month, and 17 percent say they have connectivity issues weekly.

To make matters worse, the home routers running Wi-Fi are often outdated and have few security features. Moreover, home wireless encryption standards are substandard and can be cracked relatively easily using no more than a $30 antenna and a laptop running Linux. Once an attacker has obtained access to a consumer wireless network, they typically can connect in the future at their leisure.

As the final bit of icing on the cake, asking residents to attach a smart home hub or product to their home router is most likely illegal because most landlords don’t pay for that Wi-Fi service. While a managed network provided by the property manager or building owner can help avoid this, it introduces more complexity and cost.

Aside from avoiding Wi-Fi, here are four more ways you can ensure you’re providing the safest and most secure connectivity options to residents:

1. Start by doing your homework.
Before you invest in smart home technology, find the right partner to help provide property automation. Pay close attention to service agreements and avoid vendors just looking to make a sale. Your technology partner, along with the hardware, software, and services they provide, should be able to meet all modern security standards.

You’ll also want to take greater precautions with certain types of technology. Use at least 128-bit encryption for any communication channel that carries a threat risk, including locks and video cameras. Anything less would put your property and your residents at risk.

2. Have a backup plan.
Technology doesn’t always work the way it’s intended. Make sure you have lock options that maintain the ability to use a mechanical key—or some other backup—should your tenant have reason to need it. The last thing you want is for residents to be locked out of their homes in the event of a technological malfunction. If that does happen, the blame is on you.

3. Know how resident data is used.
Companies like Amazon and Facebook have pioneered the use of consumer data to deliver targeted ads, and you can be sure that data collected from smart home devices will be used in the same way. Before you start collecting any data, consider how you (and any partners) will use and protect that data.

Make sure your partners treat resident data with at least the same level of confidentiality and security that you do. Be transparent with residents about what information their devices might collect and who will have access to that data. Avoid hardcoding certificates or credentials, and never share master PIN codes.

Studies show that there is indeed an appetite for smart home features among today’s renters. Many are willing to pay more for the added convenience that smart technology can provide, which is why the multifamily industry should continue to explore connectivity as a means to add value and differentiate properties.

Just realize that not all smart home devices and platforms are created equal, and some come with more risk than residents are willing to accept. Prioritize security when evaluating any new technologies to ensure the benefits outweigh any potential threats.

 

Sean Miller is president of PointCentral, a subsidiary of Alarm.com and the leader in enterprise property automation solutions for long-term and short-term managers of single-family and multifamily rental properties. Outside of having a lifelong passion for technology, Mr. Miller has almost 10 years of professional experience with B2B and B2C IoT/home automation technology, having previously led global sales and business development for Wemo, Belkin’s home automation business unit, and launched Mobile Link, a cellular-based internet connectivity service for generators, at Generac Power Systems.