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Has your smart home betrayed you?


More and more people are using technology to automate their homes and change how they live. Home heating, lighting, entertainment, cooking, and washing can all be activated by our smartphones or even using voice activation.

Almost every new home appliance from televisions to toasters will come with an always-online connection to the internet. But as you sit there, enjoying your Jetson's lifestyle, there is a dark side to the internet of things, and we are only just beginning to make the price.

When you install your latest shiny smart fridge freezer, TV, or smart speaker, did you stop to think about how the company will update and support the product? A lack of security updates could quickly add vulnerabilities to your home network and even be declared obsolete overnight.

What happens when the firmware updates stop?

Far away from the show floors of tech trade shows is the inconvenient truth that smart devices come with an unknown expiration date. Sonos recently revealed that it would cease sending software updates and new features to legacy products. It was a wake-up call to many early adopters who quickly realized that they no longer own the things they buy.

Why did it take us so long to see what was waiting on the horizon? Anyone that has owned a smartphone or a computer knows that the performance often degrades after a few years and that five years is a long time in the tech industry. Were we naive to think that home appliances and smart home products would continue to be supported when they, too, have a computer inside?

Every so-called smart device will contain multiple software components that require firmware upgrades to keep it safe. Try to imagine a few where a home is full of devices that no longer receive security updates after being abandoned by their manufacturers. How long until a hacker exploits a weakness in these components and gains access to all of them online? 

It's not alarmist to suggest that we are creating a ticking time bomb. Manufacturers need to be more transparent about their future support plans so our future homes are not filled with zombie devices that could compromise our privacy and safety. 

There will be people reading this with stereos that were made in the '80s and still work fine. What damage are we doing to our planet by hyping the next big thing while throwing perfectly good devices onto the scrapheap?

Digital forensics 

Digital forensics is nothing new. After watching too many cop shows, we know that smartphones and computers will be the first things seized if you are accused of committing a crime. But the deluge of data being created by everything from smartwatches, washing machines to fridges is already being used by detectives.

For example, the digital forensics team at Cranfield University was asked to investigate a case where a smart washing machine was an alibi in a case. The accused claimed to be at home doing their washing at the time of the crime, which was several miles away. But they were able to prove that the mobile phone triggered the wash cycle and incriminated the defendant, who was later proved guilty.

Smartwatches are also showing up in more and more cases, too. Heart rate, GPS movements, and messages can all help the police build a narrative of events around a crime.

Doorbell surveillance

There is an element of irony in people buying a Ring Doorbell for greater privacy and protection. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently found the Ring app was guilty of sending customer data to tech giants such as Facebook and Google for marketing purposes.

Although we have, for the most part, accepted the fact that third-party trackers will monitor our online activity, you don't expect it from your doorbell. But this is just one of many embarrassments for the company after the Washington Post reported that over 400 local law enforcement agencies across the US entered into surveillance partnerships with Amazon's Ring doorbells. 

Many groups have also accused the devices of racial profiling and encouraging the spying on our neighbours rather than building a community. But once again, it's the security behind the always watching camera and always listening microphone that provides the most significant concern.
Last year Ring's equipment also hit the headlines when a family heard the words "Is anyone home? We're gonna find out." If security can be compromised on relatively new products, dare you imagine what could happen in the future with houses full of connected devices that have not received updates in years?

Sustainability

The tech industry should be paving the way for a new era of sustainability, helping people do more with less. By contrast, it appears to be fuelling a throwaway society where we are caught in a hype loop of the next big thing and buying disposable devices that we don't need.

There is an argument that we are being betrayed by the smart homes we are building. Your shiny new smart device will quickly become outdated and encourage wasteful behaviour that adds to the problems that continue engulfing our tiny planet.

Although tech enables greater sustainability, there is tech backlash building, and maybe we would all be better off merely consuming less, not differently.

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