A Return To The “Dumb“ Home?

The recent Nest smart thermostat outages highlight severe problems with smart home technology.
Published: Mon 01 Feb 2016

A software update in December shut down a number of Google-owned Nest smart home thermostats, leaving many homes in the US and the UK in the cold. The company admitted that a bug, causing the systems to shut down, had only emerged in January. The bug forced thermostats’ batteries to drain, rendering the systems incapable of controlling temperature at all.

It left users of the device, which is designed to save energy by learning what temperatures owners like, unable to control the temperature in their homes. The “glitch” could not have arrived at a worse time for most- the coldest weather for years.

Nest urged users to follow a nine-point online guide to manually reset and recharge the thermostat while they work on a solution.

This is not the first time that Nest outages have occurred. There have also been high-profile outages in the past few months — one back in September and another in October. 

Good intentions

Nest, which was founded by iPod designer Tony Fadell and was bought by Google for $3.2 billion two years ago, was viewed by many as the poster child for smart home devices

Users can control the thermostat with a smartphone when away from home, and the device can programme itself to turn central heating down when owners leave the house, or switch it on when they wake up. It was meant to improve energy energy efficiency conveniently for the consumer.

According to analysts at Strategy Analytics.Between 15,000 and 20,000 of the thermostats have already been sold in the UK. Sales are also made in the US, Canada, France, Belgium, Ireland and the Netherlands. Installations are in more than 190 countries. [Nest 3 – Google’s Next Step In The Smart Home.]

Nest outages highlight security fears

High-tech security cameras, thermostats and lighting systems are predicted to fill our homes in the next decade, as prices drop and they become widely available.

The idea of Nest, and other smart home technologies, is to help consumers save energy in the most convenient way but this “glitch” of Nest’s is causing more than just frustration-it is also highlighting fears that “smart home” electronics, which connect to the internet and smartphones, could create havoc if they shut down as a result of a cyber attack.

According to Ruggero Contu, a research director at technology analysis firm Gartner, the more our environments become automated, the bigger the chance of disruption and safety breaches. “There’s no doubt that as we go ahead, new vulnerabilities in privacy and other security aspects will be made present.”

As a result of the Nest outages, studies now show that consumers are becoming rather sceptical of Nest and its benefits, and that many are worried about security. And, rightly so. Recently, it was discovered that the Nest thermostat was one of many IOT devices leaking subscriber location data (post codes specifically) in clear text.  

Nest isn’t the only black sheep when it comes to smart devices and security issues-smart tea kettles, refrigerators, TVs and cars are all leaking private data and exposing consumers to potential malicious intrusions. Last year, a security company mapped and hacked insecure connected kettles across London, proving they can leak WiFi passwords. Hackers, during a challenge at the recent DEFCON, found that Samsung refrigerators failed to validate SSL certificates. This opens the door to all kinds of man-in-the-middle attacks, potentially allowing neighbors to steal your Gmail login information.

Most smart TVs, for instance, collect valuable data such as viewing habits, search terms, browsing history… pretty much anything that makes a TV "smart" is collected and transmitted not just to the manufacturer, but to other third parties. Inevitably, this data is used to send relevant adverts to TV owners, thereby creating another revenue stream.  

A company called Wink also had a major issue in May 2015 when its smart-home hubs that can control light bulbs, security cameras, door locks, thermostats, and other household items, went “down.“  The company carried out a software update last spring that rendered many of their customer's hubs useless. The hubs lost their connection to the internet for an extended period of time and basically just stopped working. 

According to Carl Wright, executive vice president and general manager at TrapX,  many companies that are developing IoT devices are not encrypting data on their devices because it impacts the final cost. Because the market is becoming highly competitive, companies are overlooking stronger security measures to keep costs low.

Dumbing it down

But it’s not just about the security. The thing is that these devices are rendered utterly useless when they shut down. The Nest thermostat was unable to complete a task that thermostats have been successfully accomplishing for a generation-that is, to ensure an agreeable household/building temperature even if it is done manually.

This may lead to a counter-trend where consumers go back to using old-fashioned, non-connected, non-smart devices — what some people are referring to as "strategic downgrading." Fussy or troublesome technology will push consumers towards an older generation of a product that might not have all the latest and smartest features, but is better suited to their needs and can be operated and adjusted manually with no fuss.

Outages will happen — consumer-grade smart home devices are not going to work perfectly 100% of the time and the Internet connection won’t always be 100% reliable and software updates sometimes come with bugs. This means that smart-home devices need to have counter-measures for when they do, inevitably, fail.

In other words, it’s probably time we dumb it down a bit….

Further reading

The Telegraph- Nest thermostat owners left without heating after software glitch

TechDirt- Samsung's Smart TVs Are Collecting And Storing Your Private Conversations

CBC News- Nest smart thermostat outages highlight issues with smart home technology

The Register-Connected kettles boil over, spill Wi-Fi passwords over London

Tech Dirt-Internet Of Not-So-Smart Things: Samsung's Latest Smart Fridge Can Expose Your Gmail Password


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