I live in a relatively smart house. We have an Alexa in every room. Yes, including our two bathrooms. We have smart bulbs or smart light fixtures in nearly all of our rooms, and can control brightness, intensity, and sometimes color. Our hallway lights up when we walk through it.
We have smart shades on our family room windows that open and close on verbal command. Ever since I installed our Alexa-controlled microwave, I haven't once touched the buttons. And while our air fryer won't make me a sandwich on command, it will cook chicken when we tell it to.
We even have a toilet seat that automatically opens when you walk into the room. For a while, we had that installed in the guest bathroom, and it definitely caused some consternation among visitors if we didn't pre-brief them before they went in and prepared to do their business.
I'm telling you all this so you don't think I'm a Luddite. I've pretty much embraced hands-free control wherever possible. My wife hasn't exactly embraced it, but she puts up with it because she is incredibly tolerant with the patience of a saint.
But with all of that, there are two smart devices that I will never, ever install in my house: a smart garage door opener and an outside smart lock.
To be fair, garage door openers existed well before there were voice assistants, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. And garage door openers were problematic pretty much since the day the first radio-operated remote control was sold. Well, actually since the second radio-operated remote control was sold.
Go ahead and Google the phrase "garage door opener neighbor". Go ahead. I'll wait.
Yeah. It's a thing. Remotes that open one neighbor's garage door sometimes also open another neighbors' garage doors. That goes way back to before there were hackers and cyberattacks to worry about. Basically, the classic remotes for garage door openers operate via radio frequency, and each opener is supposed to operate with a slightly different frequency or identifying characteristic.
But if two units are sold in the same neighborhood with the same basic configuration, sometimes one unit can open another user's garage. Some openers set their link frequency using tiny little dip switches in the remote and in the opener, so if you fiddle with the dip switch on a remote enough, you can even spoof a neighbor's door into opening. Some of the more modern RF openers aren't subject to this, but many of the less expensive units are still vulnerable, even to this day.
My garage door does have an RF-powered remote, but I actually keep the door shut off and locked via an internal wall switch, so no remote anywhere can trick it into opening.
All of that was before garage door openers became smart. In many ways, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth-controlled garage door openers are substantially more secure than the old RF units. While it's possible to hack a Wi-Fi signal, it does require a level of expertise that -- okay, fine, the neighbor's teenager probably has.
But I'm honestly not all that concerned that someone (whether the neighbor's kid or a nation-state hacking team) will hack my garage door's Wi-Fi signal. Read on to find out what worries me. But first, let's talk about front doors.
Actually, first, let's talk about something very few of us talk about or even think about: storm and screen doors. When I grew up in New Jersey, our front and back doors were actually doubled up. The front door had a storm door while the back had a screen door.
Screen doors and storm doors are lighter weight doors that live just outside the main door. Storm doors usually have glass windows and are meant to add extra protection to the house in storms, while letting in a bit more light. Screen doors have screened in window areas, to allow the door to remain open and provide ventilation, but keep the bugs out.
While the house I grew up in had these somewhat anachronistic architectural details, no place I've lived since has had either a storm or screen door. In fact, according to a very informal social media survey by a builder located in the Minneapolis, St. Paul area, less than 35% of the folks surveyed indicated they had either a storm or screen door.
This is an article about smart homes. So, where am I going with this discussion of screen doors? Allow me one more digression, and I promise I'll tie it all together.
I have a dog, and before him, I used to have an indoor-only cat. Every day, when I read my local community's Facebook group or posts on Nextdoor, there's a story about a dog or cat getting out, posted by the heartbroken pet parent. Over the years, friends and neighbors have told soul-crushing stories about guests, landlords, or tradesfolk who accidentally left a door open and let out an animal, often losing the animal forever.
So, let's assume you install a smart lock on one of your doors. Let's further assume that you have lever style knobs on that door. If you're one of the 65% or so who doesn't have a screen door or a smart door, you now have an unlocked door that a dog who is smart enough to open a door handle can get out of. There's a good chance your furry friend might recognize the sound of the door unlocking, find that opening tempting, and get out to go explore before you can intervene. Who knows what will happen after that?
Yes, yes. I know, it's pretty far fetched and unlikely, especially since most residential doors open inward, but it could happen.
So, look, I'm not really all that concerned that hackers will break into my Wi-Fi and trigger my smart door locks, although I realize it is a possibility. Honestly, if a rogue nation state wants access to the inside of my house, all they need to do is show up at my front door with coffee and freshly-baked cookies.
I'm not even that concerned about local hackers. My phone is password protected. But there are a lot of folks whose security is rather lax, and what if their phones get lost or stolen? What if they've stopped carrying keys? How are they going to get in?
My Wi-Fi setup is pretty secure, I keep track of what's allowed onto my network, and so it's fairly unlikely that the neighborhood kids would remotely trigger my front door lock or garage door opener if they were controlled by smart devices.
No, my concern is the glitches. I have a motion-controlled Govee Lyra light in my hallway. It's always set to blue. "Alexa, set Lyra to blue," works just fine. But every week or so, the Lyra changes modes. It suddenly decides to put on some sort of whacked out light show that we never asked it to perform.
I mentioned we have an Alexa in every room. We've very carefully set up the wake words so we don't accidentally trigger an Alexa a room or so away. And yet, every so often, one of the other Alexas decides to wake up and spout some nonsense or start playing a random song. It's a little disconcerting.
It doesn't happen very often, but one day about a year ago, my smart shades opened up of their own accord. Apparently, a software update was triggered on the SmartThings hub, and it rebooted, and the shades just decided to open.
It's not just me. I've written previously about how an Alexa belonging New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo woke him in bed one night by screaming. I also wrote about Alexa owners reporting stories about their devices breaking out with unbidden, evil-sounding laughter.
Devices force updates. They auto-reboot. Cloud services controlling IoT devices go down, shut down, or update with problematic code.
To be fair, this is an expected side-effect of the complexity we allow in our lives. After all, an always-on broadband connection between our smart devices and AIs running on back-end server farms is a very complex technological feat. It is, really, quite amazing that I can tell Alexa to set Lyra to blue, and she does.
But when it comes to putting our security, pets, and families at risk, amazing doesn't cut it. Tolerating glitches isn't good enough. We generally love our smart devices, but one way we don't ever describe them is as "rock solid reliable."
And here's the thing. Until a door lock or a garage door opener is provably, demonstrably rock-solid reliable, I'm not putting it in my house. If you decide to go for it, my one piece of advice -- especially for an outside door lock -- is to put in a screen or storm door first. They are harder to open, usually requiring you to push a button and pull at the same time. That way, if the front door unlocking device does glitch, it will keep your furry loved ones safely protected behind the secondary door. Unless they can figure out how to open the outer doors, too.
So, what smart home devices have you installed? Do you have a smart garage opener or a smart door lock? Do you have a pet that can open a door? Share with us your stories below.
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