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WIRELESS WATCHDOGS: Smart home security in 2016 and beyond

0621
 2016


By Sharon Jayson

Traditionally, residential alarm systems were designed to protect homes from burglary and alert customers to fire and carbon monoxide dangers, and that was it. Now, a makeover is underway. Among other things, new technologies connect security systems to smartphones for remote control and streaming video as part of the so-called connected home. State-of-the art devices are forcing the conventional home security industry to do a double take as it watches a host of competitors getting into the business of providing peace of mind as well as old-school security. 
 
“Traditional security systems focus on those emergency events: ‘Call the police. Call the ambulance. Call the fire department,’” said Daniel Herscovici, general manager and senior vice president of Comcast’s Xfinity Home, based in Philadelphia, Pa. 
 
“When you look at connected security solutions that layer in home automation, you can expand to new-use situations that may not be life safety but provide customers with peace of mind,” he said. “By that I mean, ‘Did my package arrive? Did my kids get home safe? Are my pipes going to leak? Is my dog on the couch?’” 
 
Merlin Guilbeau, executive director/CEO of the Electronic Security Association, a nonprofit trade association for the security industry based in Irving, Tx., says his industry has evolved in the past five years. 
 
“The driver is technology systems have become smart, and technology has become broader than just security and protection,” he said. 

 
In addition to the more traditional internet, phone and cable providers such as Time Warner, Comcast and AT&T that have added home security to their services, Guilbeau says high-profile tech companies such as Google, Amazon and Apple are also moving into “this space to provide technology for the home.” Google owns Nest, which offers a security camera that streams video to a smartphone, tablet or laptop, and a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm that alerts your phone. Apple’s entry into home automation with its HomeKit allows its “Siri” to act on voice commands similarly to Amazon Echo’s “Alexa” and works with various security sensors and devices produced by other companies. 
 
“Security is an interesting commodity. It’s kind of an emotional purchase. In a lot of cases, (customers) purchase it because something happened. They were robbed or their neighbor was robbed or someone they know (was burglarized),” Guilbeau said. The new smart home options “add to the value of having a security system,” he said. 
 
“It provides that emotional security, but it also gives me the ability to control all these other devices that I haven’t been able to do in the past,” he said. 
 
But these new opportunities aren’t without risk, suggests data security researcher Emily McReynolds, associate director of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. 
 
“We talk in threat models,” she said. With home security, the model is called “assumption of breach.” 
 
“Using home security systems connected to Wi-Fi are always going to be problematic because as soon as you connect something, it has the ability to be hacked,” McReynolds said. “We know there are going to be flaws.” 
 
“One of the dangers we worry about when all these devices are connected (is) there are so many more opportunities for attack. Maybe one device has really good security, but you add two more devices and maybe one of those doesn’t have good security and can be a real threat to your home. Your security is only as good as the weakest device on the network,” McReynolds said. “You want to make sure they all work together but not introduce new vulnerabilities every time you add a new device.” 
 
Renewed concerns about these connected systems proved true in January when Bostonbased cybersecurity firm Rapid7 revealed a flaw in Comcast’s Xfinity home security system. The bug made it appear that door and window sensors were armed and could detect motion when they’d really been breached. 
 
“It’s been identified and we’re in the process of ways to address it,” Comcast’s Herscovici said. “The solution is not something we can execute quickly because we want to make sure any solution doesn’t have ramifications down the road.” 
 
McReynolds cautions that security concerns aren’t just focused on whether systems can be hacked. There is also concern about the data being collected and whether companies are collecting more information than needed. 
 
“Companies make money on data collection and modeling profiles,” she said. “Data minimization is a preference of privacy advocates but not necessarily (for) industry,” she said. 
 

The Pew Research Center, a social research organization in Washington, D.C., released a report in January that reflects that skepticism. While 54 percent of Americans consider it an acceptable trade-off to have surveillance cameras in the office to improve workplace security and reduce theft, a scenario about a smart thermostat in the home that might save energy costs in return for data about people’s comings and goings was considered “acceptable” by just 27 percent of adults. And 55 percent viewed it as “not acceptable.” Just as more companies are entering the home security marketplace, many consumers are taking the DIY approach and checking out the offerings at their local home improvement store. 
 
“One of the issues with DIY is the issue of interoperability. If you have five devices and they do not work together, you have five different approaches to security and privacy and all those things just add to the complexity,” said Jeff Lyman, chief marketing officer for Vivint, Inc., a smart home company based in Provo, Utah. “The problem for most consumers is this gets very nerdy very fast.” 
 
And, he says DIY costs can quickly add up. “By the time you get a smart camera, a smart thermostat, a smart home protector for security, you’re quickly at $1,500 and none of it talks to each other,” Lyman said. 
 
To help consumers, the Electronic Security Association created a website — alarm.org — to navigate home security options. And, Guilbeau said the trade magazine SDM (Security Distributing and Marketing) annually rates security companies based on revenue generated from consumer sales. But he said these ratings are “getting more complex.” 
 
“In some cases, the larger companies will not release the data for us to really understand the amount of growth they’ve incurred until the new business has reached a certain point — three to five years,” he said, noting that his group’s membership includes the major players as well as small, independent companies. 
 
“One caution is that not all companies report their revenues,” Guilbeau said. The rating system “gives a snapshot of what industry looks like. ADT is typically at the top, but most names you probably won’t recognize. I don’t think big companies have been in the industry long enough yet to see where they rate.” 
 
Last year’s top 100 U.S. companies that provide electronic security systems and services to both residential and non-residential customers did reflect ADT in first place, with Vivint, Inc. in fourth place. Tyco Integrated Security was second, followed by Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, Inc. 
 
The number one feature most customers want is a security camera to remotely view what’s going on inside and around their home, said Kevin Roarke, ADT area sales manager in Austin. 
 
For companies such as ADT that have been in the security business for decades, a 2015 report from the global consumer research group Ericsson ConsumerLab suggests an edge over other companies when consumers consider a connected home. The survey found 39 percent of consumers said they’d prefer an alarm or home security company over other options, including wireless/mobile/telecom providers or electronics manufacturers. 
 
McReynolds, the Tech Policy Lab security expert, said people have to consider what’s at stake when determining just how connected they want their home to be. 
 
“The key is you don’t need your toaster to text you,” she said. “Think about when technology is actually useful in creating a better situation and don’t just add connected devices to connect devices. There are very positive reasons to have a connected home.”



Sources: Academy of American Poets; American Kennel Club; Apple Inc.; Beijing Municipal Government; Burglaralarms.org; CE Pro; City of Matsumoto; Japan; CNET; Consumers Digest; Electronic Security Association; Engadget; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Folger Shakespeare Library; Historic Jamestown; Home Security Monitoring Center; IMDb; International Association of Certified Home Inspectors; Library of Congress; Lonely Planet; Multicultural Media; Telecom and Internet Council; nannycam.com; National Geographic; National Neighborhood Watch; National Park Service; National Sheriffs’ Association; Netatmo; Popular Science; Scientific Writings of Joseph Henry; A Wonderful Fifty Years by Edwin T. Holmes; Texas Monthly; THEMUSEUM, Ontario, Canada; University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Walt Disney World; and WECU Surveillance.

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