Without taking the proper steps to build a secure smart home environment, we leave the public at risk. So is 2017 the year that we take security seriously?
With the advancement of technology in every aspect of our lives, people are looking toward the next big thing in comfortable and efficient living, the smart home. What started with connected thermostats and light bulbs has expanded to include appliances and audio devices, energy and utilities, safety and security, and various other areas. The market is expanding in ways that were unforeseeable in the beginning years of the smart home industry’s conception. Much like the internet, as markets expand they must also learn to expand their defenses.
The smart home ecosystem is at an interesting point in its development. While its appeal has crossed over from early adopters to mass acceptance, the interest has not translated into revenue and consumer confidence in the space. The space is steadily becoming more popular in the US, with multiple surveys showing a growing interest among consumers. US home automation sales are projected to exceed $40 billion by 2020. However to meet that projection, manufacturers and developers will have to address security concerns, the skepticism of the public, and interoperability.
A modern connected home allows its owner to control multiple devices from a central location, such as a smartphone or Amazon’s Echo, both in real time and using pre-set rules. For example, a user can have the smart home programmed to turn the lights and AC on as the user heads home from work, or have the house lights gradually brighten in the morning together with the coffee maker preparing the day’s first cup, or unlock the front door to let the cable guy in when the user is out of town. The number of such personalization options available now is pretty incredible. This versatility opens up some interesting possibilities, both negative and positive.
The downside to limitless data points available for smart home and IoT adaptors is at each point users are more susceptible to security breaches and DDoS attacks. According to Allen Prothis at Sigfox, for IoT developers and players in the smart home space, “the trick is to engineer what you’re doing, assuming the worst. To match security to the threat, throughout the ecosystem.” In order to match consumer interest to consumer confidence in the smart home space, it is on us as the gatekeepers of the smart home ecosystem to combat consumer skepticism by focusing on software security. By implementing the appropriate security measures, predicting security threats and intervening at a faster rate will be key to assuaging consumer anxiety.
The continued investment and activity of tech industry heavyweights in the space could help solve two of the biggest current issues that is hampering adoption, namely device interoperability and security.
For a user to be able to control his or her smart home from a central location, such as a phone or a voice command device, all connected devices need to be able to communicate with each other. Currently, there are a multitude of competing home automation technologies and protocols (e.g., Z-Wave, ZigBee, Insteon, Thread, Apple Homekit Accessory Protocol, X10, UPB, etc.) and hubs that attempt to bridge them (e.g., Lowe’s Iris, Staples Connect, Samsung SmartThings, Wink, Insteon, Lutron, etc.). This can lead to user confusion, lack of simple interoperability among connected devices in the market, and increased obsolescence risk of current smart home technologies that may not survive the inevitable shakeout in the space.
The continued interest and activity of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Samsung could accelerate standardization, bring about stability, and help smart devices reach mass acceptance. Each of these players is vying for dominance in the field, and has introduced at least one platform that lets users seamlessly control connected devices from various manufacturers, as long as those devices support that platform. Such platforms include Google Home and Nest (Alphabet), Apple HomeKit, Samsung SmartThings, and Amazon Echo/Alexa. Moreover, platform support does not need to be exclusive, so a single device can support multiple platforms. For example, the recently launched ecobee3 lite thermostat supports HomeKit, Echo, Samsung SmartThings and IFTTT.
In addition to interoperability, there are a few other challenges that the smart home ecosystem still needs to solve. These include setup complexity, high cost, risk of obsolescence of current devices and hubs, and security. On that latter point, earlier in October, a botnet made up of devices such as home Wi-Fi routers and connected video cameras made international news as it launched distributed denial of service attacks against Dyn, a dynamic domain name service provider.
As the CEO of a stealth startup that is developing an innovative smart home device, I, together with my development team, keep going back to a few key principles to keep us focused:
● The ecosystem is in flux, and device makers have to make smart choices around which platforms and hubs to support. We keep ourselves informed of current and projected trends in the hub and platform space, and focus on ones that have the most traction and will most likely to continue to be relevant going forward.
● Prove to the market that while hacks are possible, an affirmative defense on the part of startups, is our best offense in combating cyber hacks.
● Offer personalization options that let the user easily embrace the device and make the experience part of their lifestyle
● Make sure that the device’s value proposition is strong enough so that users will be willing to pay a premium for it over traditional alternatives.
● Figure out how to form strategic partnerships with existing ecosystem leaders, and what we can bring to the table that will interest them
This is an exciting time to be part of the smart home ecosystem. There is so much we can do to make people’s lives easier and more enjoyable, but we still have some big challenges to work through. The user interest is there and it is up to us to turn this into the next mass market, above all by ensuring its safety.