4 Things To Consider About Privacy Now That 'Smart Homes' Are On The Rise

by Anna Johansson

Smart home systems are on the rise, and many cyber security experts are warning customers to careful with what they place inside their homes.

Released last summer, the Amazon Echo is gaining popularity amongst homeowners and consumers. The simple wireless speaker and voice command device features a seven-piece microphone setup that allows it to be activated by one simple word: Alexa.

Once activated, the device is able to read off sports scores and headlines, play music, make to-do lists, stream podcasts, set alarms and do a number of other things that are normally handled manually. It's a nifty device with a lot of potential.

What many people appreciate so much is the obedience of Alexa. When you tell your echo to do something, she does it, unlike your spouse or children, perhaps. But one Echo owner had no idea just how obedient she really is. 

A few weeks ago, National Public Radio's Weekend Edition was reviewing the Amazon Echo when a listener who already owned one of the devices had a unique experience. In the follow up story, NPR host Rachel Martin said:

Listener Roy Hagar wrote in to say our story prompted his Alexa to reset his thermostat to 70 degrees. It was difficult for Jeff Finan to hear the story because his radio was right next to his Echo speaker, and when [Alexa] heard her name, she started playing an NPR News summary. Marc-Paul Lee said his unit started going crazy too.

While the story is humorous, it does give us a glimpse into the future of smart home technology, one that may not be all rainbows and butterflies. Over the past few years, we've seen an influx of smart home technology in the marketplace. From lighting and appliances, to door locks and security systems, there's smart home technology for everything. It's now possible to automate almost anything in the home, but with these advantages come potential risks.

For centuries, there's always been a faction that's distrusted the evolution of technology. If you've read the novel "1984," you've seen a dramatized glimpse into what a future with ubiquitous cameras and intuitive technologies could be like. While we probably don't have to fear the presence of a Big Brother in our homes right now, here are four potential issues that could arise in conjunction with the growth of smart home technology:

1. Technology can be hacked.

Technology can clearly be hacked. Anyone who owns a laptop or desktop computer knows this. But what happens when the technology being hacked actually controls part of your home? That's when things become risky.

In 2014, security researchers were able to show proof that hackers could take total control of certain smart home devices. In another instance, a security firm was able to determine that these hacks can happen in as little as 20 minutes. While much depends on the device, and security measures are increasing, this does speak to the severity of the problem.

2. Devices don't always play nice.

When you have all kinds of different devices in the home, it's difficult to get them all to sync with each other. With various software, apps and tools, it's challenging to get everything working on the same page. In some situations, this can result in accidental mistakes that can lead to dangerous side effects.

3. We now have cameras inside the home.

As we bring more and more devices into our homes, we're also introducing additional cameras. Cell phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers and security systems all have tiny cameras. While these cameras are designed to be activated by the homeowner, it's not impossible for them to be hacked by cyber criminals.

In extreme cases, there have even been reports of people hacking into baby monitors and talking to children (unbeknownst to parents). In a 2015 study of nine cameras, it became clear that WiFi-based cameras have loopholes.

“Eight of the nine cameras got an F and one got a D minus,”Mark Stanislav, one of the researchers, told Fusion. “Every camera had one hidden account that a consumer can't change because it's hard coded or not easily accessible. Whether intended for admin or support, it gives an outsider backdoor access to the camera.”

4. It could make break-ins easier.

While smart home security systems are designed to make homes safer, it's actually possible they're making some homes more prone to burglaries. Because these systems are controlled by the Internet, hackers can gain entry and remotely disable door locks, garage door openers and security cameras. All it takes is personal information landing in the wrong person's hands.

How'd we get from a humorous story about an Amazon Echo device accidentally getting hacked by an NPR host to malicious hackers spying on your sleeping baby? Well, it may seem like a major jump, but it's something homeowners and consumers need to think about. Smart home technology is certainly intriguing, but you can't purchase these items blindly.

Keep the potential risks in mind, and only bring in technology you feel comfortable with. The technology landscape is changing, and we all need to be hyperaware of both the benefits and risks associated with these incredible tools.