Smart Home, Dumb Choice

Smart home products, or ‘domotics’, are products that are aimed for home automation, resulting in a so-called smart home. Popular examples are doorbells equipped with cameras, remote controlled ovens, voice assistants like Alexa or Google Home and smart tv’s, which are the standard these days. These devices are often connected to the internet or a specific server forming a network, which is often referred to as the Internet of things (IoT). Over the recent years the popularity of these products has increased rapidly. According to a study by Statista, the US revenue of smart home products reached 28 billion in 2019, increasing 12% steadily every year. In fact, one in five households in the US owns at least one smart home voice assistant.

While it is great to see who is ringing your doorbell from your phone instead of walking all the way to the door, or turn off the light by voice command rather than just walking to the light switch, smart home products also come with a lot of disadvantages most buyers probably don’t consider. In this article we will show you why the advantages of smart home products often don’t hold up and explain the disadvantages, making smart home products a danger to your privacy and a waste of your valuable money.

Saving energy

Probably the most heard reason for buying smart home products is that they save energy. For example, smart thermostats can be wirelessly controlled, enabling the user to shut off the heating in the house when gone, and turning it on an hour before the user gets home again, saving energy. Another example is smart lighting systems that the user can turn off remotely without having to walk to the light switch. This way the user has no excuse to turn them off. Other lighting systems are able to save energy by adjusting the brightness of the light to their surroundings. More examples can be found, but all are based on the same principle: adjusting devices to the user’s routine and increasing convenience. Even though these smart solutions seem promising about saving energy and money, in reality this is not so much the case.

Smart thermostats are often sold with the promise to significantly reduce energy costs. These costs mostly result from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), which is the technology that is used for indoor environmental comfort. Research concludes that even though smart thermostats can reduce energy consumption by 5-15% in theory, in practice little to no savings are realized. This inefficiency is often caused by poor usability, misunderstanding and improper installment. Furthermore, poor ergonomics of smart thermostats have proven to interfere with their proper use. Smart thermostats are in practice frequently overridden, especially in people who are  accustomed to changing thermostat settings frequently, resulting in less energy-efficient performance. Other research concludes that user behaviour changes initiated by the purchase of smart thermostats are not sustained in the long-term, showing a significant decrease in energy savings over a short period of 11 months. They also conclude that users often suffer from a rebound effect; because their house is initially more energy-efficient they feel free to use more, resulting in an increase of energy consumption overall. This all substantiates the fact that the use of these products might not be as energy efficient as commonly believed. There is even research that concludes that homes equipped with smart thermostats even use more energy than regular thermostats, especially in homes equipped with heat pumps.

With regards to smart lighting systems, these also might be more inefficient than regular systems. A dumb LED bulb already uses as less as 7 watts. In comparison, the Philips Hue smart bulb uses 8,5 watts. While this might not matter that much, the Hue bulb is always connected to a hub and consuming power, 0.4 watts in fact. In an analysis from Treehugger they concluded that this means that the bulb will use as much power per day as it is off as it does when it is on for 66 minutes. As they conclude: “we would be better off in terms of energy and exercise if we got up and flicked a light switch”. Other experiments comparing dumb LED lights with smart bulbs even conclude that smart lights use more energy than dumb lights altogether, assuming regular light use.

In the end, the energy savings caused by smart home products are the result of how you use them. If you want to save energy, start by changing your behaviour first. Only then proceed to buy a smart thermostat which has good usability, and make sure it is properly installed.

Convenience, or Lazyness?

Saving energy is not the only reason people buy smart home products. Another important reason is convenience. This convenience is often used in marketing to get people to buy their products. An example from Hive lights: “If you’ve just sat down on the sofa after a busy day and realise that you’ve left the kitchen lights on, it’s tempting just to leave them. But with smart lights you can quickly turn them off from your phone. Over time, little actions like this will turn into big savings on your electricity bill.” Really? While this quote highlights the possible increase in comfort from buying a smart home product, it also reflects the laziness that is promoted with it. Can you imagine not getting off the couch to flick a light switch just because you are that lazy? For the people who have seen the 2008 Disney film WALL-E, we might just end up as the overweight hover chair-bound people in the future, not having to move at all. Gary Altman from the Observer describes the use of smart home products as follows: “If all of this sounds needlessly complex for the sake of unquantifiable convenience, that’s probably because it is.” Furthermore he goes on to mention another reason, which is the nerdy thrill resulting from telling a digital assistant to dim the lights. It is interesting to see that this feeling is mostly present in the younger generations that have adapted to using technology, while the feeling that smart home products promote laziness is mostly present in the aged population. Let’s be honest, smart home technology can be pretty cool. But still, there are many other reasons to reduce the amount of smart home products.

One aspect we also need to be aware of is how the convenience of AI voice assistants will shape the behavior of kids. An article in the Washington Post discusses how these assistants could influence our kids. Psychologists are worried about how family dynamic and social interactions will be affected. A voice assistant doesn’t care in which manner you speak to it, it doesn’t care if you adhere to social interaction standards. The brains of children are still in the process of being shaped and they learn through trial and error. There will be the possibility that they think a certain type of demanding behavior is alright, because they receive no bad feedback from their voice assistants.  An article by Hunterwalk is titled: Amazon Echo Is Magical. It’s Also Turning My Kid Into an Asshole. The article mentions how children are not required to say “Alexa, please” or “Thank you” when communicating with the AI assistant. Children will be more inclined to believe that they can get what they want, without being polite. This belief could harm their real-life social interactions. The Washington Post noted that none of these AI voice assistant companies made themselves available to answer questions about this particular topic. Children are most of the time not aware that AI robots or virtual assistants aren’t social beings. They think the AI has mental states, emotions and feelings and see it as a friend they can trust. Today’s AI assistants are not fully equipped to meet all expectations a child expects of a ‘friend’. This might confuse and frustrate a child and have a bad impact on the child’s emotional state.

Private and Safe?

Smart home products can be bought to increase safety by always being alert and ready to report to their user’s and the authorities when suspicious activity occurs at your home, but what if you are not the only one that can control and access your smart product. When homes use more smart technology products, they will also be more susceptible to being hacked by people with malicious intents. A couple in the United States, Milwaukee had their 700$ smart home products hacked, the hacker turned up their thermostats, the hacker spoke to them through a camera in their kitchen and the hacker played unwanted music through their system.  This is a huge violation of privacy and a very scary outlook for what hackers can do. An article on CBC describes how a group of ethical hackers hacked a smart home with permission of the family to test the security of the smart devices. The group of hackers was able to access the families front door and home lights, as well as the cameras installed in the home. The hackers were also able to send voice commands to the smart assistant of the family that was connected to the families credit card. These kinds of breaches can lead to blackmail, when the wrong people have access to your smart devices.

In 2019 a research was funded for ethically hacking AI voice assistants like Google Home, Amazon Alexa or Apple Siri. The way this was done was through lasers light commands. The microphones of these voice assistants convert sounds of voices into electrical signals. However, hackers can manipulate the part where the sound is normally converted called the diaphragm. The diaphragm can be triggered with light signals as well. Hackers can encode messages in their regular and easy-to-buy laser lights and then from outside the home they would be able to access the AI voice assistant through one of your windows. Once control is taken over such an AI assistant, then anything connected to the assistant can be controlled as well, like switches, accounts, vehicles and doors. Research like that shows that systems can be hacked through the tiniest unexpected exploitation and that we should always be wary of our safety and privacy when in possession of such technology.

Another aspect of this is the ‘legal’ invasion of privacy that occurs daily. This happens either through ignorance of users or companies pushing the boundaries of invading their users privacy. An article in TechRepublic describes how in 2017 Google Home mini, would wake up by themselves and record sounds to send them back to Google. The reporter noticed this only when he saw the Ai assistant turn itself on when listening to a television show. Now one might think that this was in 2017 and that these things don’t occur anymore. Wrong! In 2019 the Independent reported on more cases where Google Homes would turn on when the assistant wasn’t physically turned on or the waking phrase “Hey Google” wasn’t uttered. This means that private conversation could possibly still be sent to Google employees for ‘language analysis’. The article also states that some of these recordings have been leaked by an employee in the Netherlands. Imagine your intimate and private conversation being out there for anyone to hear. Even though there are safeguards that try to prevent hackers from accessing your assistance data, Google employees are able to access your data easily where the only ‘anonymized’ part is the location of your voice assistant.

An article in the Guardian describes several cases where the Amazon Alexa assistant went rogue. A former Amazon employee once came home to it’s assistant ordering train tickets for journeys that were already taken and recording TV shows that had already been watched. Another case where a user was sent 1700 audio files from another user’s assistant. Then another user claimed that it’s assistant awoke itself  while saying: “Every time I close my eyes, all I see is people dying.” These occurrences show that you never know what you can expect from your AI voice assistant. They certainly don’t support the image of a private and safe product.

Research by Javed, Sethi & Jadoun (2019) found that 91% of it’s participants had experienced an instance of an unintended voice recording. The research also found that while the majority of the participants were aware that some of their data was stored in the Amazon Cloud, they were not aware that the unintended recordings were also stored and analyzed. The research states that having a computer science background would have no effect on this ignorance, only person’s that were already concerned of their privacy were not ignorant of what happens to their personal data. In 2020 Vox reported on research that has been done lead by Boston’s Northeastern University. The research stated that based on their finding AI voice assistants could turn on accidentally as many as 19 times a day and record as much as 43 seconds of audio everytime, that means that possibly 817 seconds a day can be recorded. Imagine what could be recorded of your private life during this time. The research was done through testing various television shows on the following AI assistants: Apple Sire, Microsoft Cortana, Google Home and Amazon Alexa. It was found that each assistant had different triggers to when they would accidentally turn on. Even though your data is attempted to be anonymized, it is still possible that based on the things the user says an employee could hear personal details of the user. This is not what you want when you buy a product that is supposed to respect your privacy.

The Lack of Safeguards

Smart home devices often lack the proper safeguards to prevent children or people with a disability from improper use. In an US household a 4- and 6-year-old have been using the digital assistant Alexa to buy over 700 dollar worth of toys behind the back of their parents. While this mother was able to cancel the order, many similar problems have occured in which the parents were not so lucky. Legally, purchases made by children are voidable contracts because of the buyer being underage. Still, these errors cost you a lot of time and stress. There are a couple of ways to prevent these things from happening. The user can disable voice purchasing or set a confirmation code that is required before purchasing. The user has to keep in mind that the code should not be easily guessed. These problems are avoidable when you know exactly what to do, but you have to actively activate these safeguards. Not everybody is aware of this.

The Silent Killer

Electromagnetic waves are an issue that not many people are aware of. Low frequency electromagnetic waves are called electric and magnetic fields (EMF). They are created by for example cellphones, microwaves, computers, routers, and also by the current smart technology products that are emerging. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified EMF as possible carcinogenic, which implies a higher risk for cancer. Once households will use more and more smart technology products and even cities will implement it, then people will be much more exposed to EMF. Healthline (2018) has named several symptoms caused by high EMF exposure which include insomnia, headaches, depressive symptoms, anxiety, fatigue and lack of concentration. These symptoms can have a lot of negative effect on a person’s daily functioning. Many scientists say that more research needs to be done on EMF because causal relations are still a bit ambiguous, however the WHO does believe that some studies show a possible link between EMF and cancer in people. Therefore, before engaging with more and more smart technology, people should be absolutely sure that this will not have a very bad effect on their health.

Your Wallet

Smart home products are expensive! To turn an average dumb house into a smart home you need to spend about 15.000 dollar. Of course one can also buy a few smart home products, but smart products are always more expensive than their dumb alternative. For instance, you can buy a regular doorbell at a price of 10 euros, whereas branded smart doorbells can cost you up to 150 euros! The price difference varies a lot between different products and is decreasing over time. As smart home products become more popular, conventional brands such as IKEA increasingly incorporate smart technology in their products. Because of this they are becoming more affordable. 

Conclusion

While marketeers portray smart home products as necessary convenient, energy saving solutions to everyday problems, in practice this is often not the case. Smart home products are unnecessary, very expensive compared to their ‘dumb’ alternative (if they have any) and they pose a legitimate security risk. If you really want to save the planet and save some money? Start by adjusting your own behaviour and live actively and responsible. Do you value your privacy? Providing big tech companies with huge amounts of personal data is not the way to go. In this day and age it is hard to maintain a sense of private life, when you realize the amounts of personal data big companies record from you. However, you can still try your best to fight this, while also not making it too easy for hackers to ruin your life.

”Once you’ve lost your privacy, you realize you’ve lost an extremely valuable thing.”

– Jodi Rell

It would be best to stay away from these smart products as much as possible. Afterall, have a look at what they are trying to sell to us: top 10 most useless smart home products.

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