October 3, 2023


Home is a place where we can be happy

What are the problems with smart home devices?

The 1999 Disney film Smart House, aside from being 90 minutes of campy fun, was actually pretty prescient about contemporary smart homes.

In the movie, the Cooper family wins a house with a built-in AI. Called “PAT,” short for “Personal Applied Technology,” the virtual assistant is able to control nearly every aspect of the home, from lighting to cleaning to preparing meals.

At first, everything runs smoothly. But PAT eventually goes rogue, trapping and terrorizing the Coopers within their own home. That flip, from obliging smart house to nightmarish funhouse, is not so far off from many of the current problems that plague contemporary smart home technology.

Learn more about smart homes in episode 2 of season 5 of the Quartz Obsession podcast, out now! Listen to “Smart homes: Built to crash” wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google | Stitcher | YouTube

There are still significant barriers to smart home adoption

According to a report from Plume, a software-as-a-service company, the average house in the US had about 20 smart devices in 2022. Meanwhile, the market for internet of things (IoT) products—a catchall term for connected physical devices—is expected to hit over $313 billion globally by 2027, according to ResearchAndMarkets.Com. But ongoing issues with smart home tech have likely slowed the pace of adoption.

Unlike the fictional PAT in Smart House, the technology currently used in homes is piecemeal, relying on a range of connected devices to perform different functions. These devices can control different aspects of a home, such as the thermostat, garage doors, or security cameras.

Companies have promised that IoT products will bring ease, convenience, and integrated functionality into our domestic lives. But that value proposition, and the vision of a home sweet automated home, has often fallen short of the mark.

Smart home devices have an interoperability problem

In an ideal world, a consumer could buy a smart device, boot it up, and have it work seamlessly with other devices in the house. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case with today’s products, due to a lack of standardization in the industry.

Devices today use a variety of different network protocols, such as wifi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, and Z-wave, which means they cannot all connect or communicate with each other. Adopting a new device might require downloading a new app for its control, creating a digitized version of the “too many remotes” dilemma.

However, the problem is being addressed. Some of the leading companies in the market, including Amazon, Apple, and Google, launched a standard communication protocol called Matter in 2019 that aims to become the industry’s new wireless standard.

Adoption of the new standard is set to take off, according to ABI Research, a tech market research firm. It projected in 2022 that in the next five years, half of the world’s “key” smart devices would be compatible with Matter.

Smart home devices are vulnerable to cyberattacks

Hypothetically, anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection could hack into a home by exploiting a vulnerability in its software. According to a report by the Czech security company Avast, nearly 41% (pdf) of smart homes have at least one potentially hackable device that could put the entire home at risk.

Poor security begins at the manufacturing stage. Many devices do not encrypt data, leaving information ripe for the picking by third parties. Devices may also lack or rarely have software updates, meaning both their design and security can quickly become obsolete. Another issue is the frequent lack of strong passwords, or use of the factory’s default passwords.

In 2016, a massive cyberattack on the eastern seaboard of the US demonstrated how smart devices not only endanger individual households, but also broader networks. Hackers used insecure devices in homes, like routers and baby monitors, to generate a botnet—a bunch of malware-infected personal computers—that took down entire websites including Twitter, Reddit, and CNN.com.

Your smart devices are probably spying on you

Smart devices collect personal data, not only because it may be required for it to perform functions, but also because data is a recurring source of value to companies. Tech giants Google and Meta may deny that they “sell” data to third parties, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sharing your information to competing advertisers bidding for ad placements.

A 2019 study (pdf) conducted by Imperial College London and Northeastern University examined the privacy of 81 different IoT devices. It found, after carrying out over 34,500 controlled experiments, that most of those devices, including smart speakers, TVs, and appliances, collected and shared personal information with a third party.

Imagine you ask your voice assistant, Alexa, to find a place to eat pizza in your neighborhood. That information could be recorded and sent to a central server owned by Amazon. In turn, that information may be shown to advertisers looking to target their next customers. In short, a home filled with smart devices also becomes a site for companies to farm monetizable data, further blurring the line between privacy and private enterprise.

There’s no way to take ownership of personal data

Even if a consumer is comfortable with sharing data, they’re still giving it away for free. Currently, there is no way for consumers to monetize personal data, though there are proposed solutions.

One business model, called “sensing as a service” (S2aaS), has been discussed in academic circles (pdf) as a way to compensate people for their information. The idea is that data consumers (i.e. tech companies) would pay data producers (i.e. smart device users) for the information they generate.

Smart home devices can be glitchy, unreliable, and unnecessary

A lot of smart home devices are low-tech products with a high-tech veneer, such as the smart hairbrush that can identify frizziness, the smart egg tray that tracks expiration dates, and $100 smart toaster that will send you push notifications exist.

If the internet goes down, smart houses can also become even “dumber” than a gadget-free house: Lights will no longer turn on, you might not be able to change the thermostat, or even unable to turn on or off your home security alarm—an incident that wreaked havoc in UK homes in 2018.

Even when everything should be working right, people with so-called smart homes have reported weird phenomena, like Alexa emitting creepy laughter and smart sink faucets triggered by certain radio frequencies. One Massachusetts homeowner couldn’t shut off his/her 7,000 smart lights for over a year due to a software issue.

While contemporary smart homes are a far cry from the terrors PAT in Smart House, they can still be headache-inducing. A home stocked with multiple connected devices will often mean needing to juggle communication protocols, navigate opaque privacy rules, and resign one’s home to a number of security vulnerabilities. In the end, sticking to a “dumb” home might turn out to be the smarter option.

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