Living in the future: Five challenges in the home automation sector – Computing

When Hanna-Barbera created ‘The Jetsons’ in 1962, they had some interesting ideas about what the world would look like in 2062. Fast-forward fifty-four years and some of those ideas don’t look so out of place in the modern home: mobile phones, flatscreen televisions and video calls are now all firmly established features of everyday life. And whilst we haven’t managed to mass-produce flying cars and pneumatic tube transportation yet, big steps have recently been made towards making automation commonplace in our homes.

Modern technology provides users with the ability to control their third-party smart devices through a single interface. In practice, this means users can switch off lights, lock doors, turn down thermostats and close window blinds at the push of a button. This suggests we are moving ever closer to a unified Internet of Things (IoT), with George Jetson’s space-age lifestyle beginning to look like an attainable reality. Inevitably, alongside the opportunities, there are a number of challenges in the sector, not least the difficulty in getting consumers to embrace smart devices.

For home automation to succeed, developers must address concerns about the reliability of smart devices compared to traditional home products and equipment. If connected devices do not possess similar functionality to precursor products, they could create a new class of problems, such as how to ensure service continuity in the event of an unexpected breakdown or service failure.

A large scale service outage is one thing, but a connected device or home automation vendor is also at the mercy of the consumer’s broadband connection. If your product cannot fall back to some lower standard of useful functionality when an internet connection is unavailable, the consumer’s valuation of your product will be harmed every time their internet connection has issues. This creates a large third-party dependency for smart device companies.

Before consumers put their faith in smart home security systems, they need to be reassured that no malicious parties will be able to hack into their smarthome systems, potentially giving thieves and vandals access to their data or even the ability to physically enter their homes. With an increasing number of home automation devices, including microphones, cameras or other monitoring technologies, a compromised home automation setup could allow cybercriminals to record householders in the intimacy of their homes.

Additionally, compromised IoT devices with weak security or setup processes that allow consumers to use the devices with their default passwords unchanged have recently been used as part of massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, programs which take servers offline by overwhelming them with inbound data.

Implementing strong security measures is absolutely essential for IoT vendors if their products are not to become the vector for spying, blackmail, DDoS or worse. Developers need to consider solutions that force default passwords to be changed, and implement end-to-end encryption between devices.

Data collection and use
Many connected home and smart products rely on value propositions that are in part about new functionality, and in part about ‘smarter’ use of resources. In order to achieve this, data is flowing between the devices and servers operated by the device providers, between devices, and to and from the consumer’s smartphone or computer. This creates opportunities to collect data that can be used to improve the service – or be analysed by marketers to learn about consumers’ habits, and use this knowledge to build and grow existing relationships.

Much of the data being generated and collected is ‘personal data’ within the meaning of Directive 95/46/EC, and with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) set to come into force within the EU on 25 May 2018, any businesses looking to take advantages of these opportunities should be keeping data privacy at the top if their agenda. Even if the systems are not hacked by malicious third parties, users and consumers need to be reassured that the vendors supplying these products and services are themselves trustworthy.

Vendors need to see compliance with data protection laws as a value differentiator when developing their product offerings and marketing strategies. Vendors who fail to do this will gradually lose out in an increasingly data and privacy conscious market. In addition, failing to clearly inform consumers about how their data is collected, stored and processed, may breach the GDPR and result in huge fines of up to €20 million or 4 per cent of global annual turnover, whichever is higher.

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