The Perils of Smart Locks

It's risky, but throwing away those house keys feels pretty good

Key Takeaways

  • Smart locks can be hacked, but it’s pretty unlikely.
  • Privacy violation is the biggest risk for any smart appliance.
  • Smart locks are really, really convenient (really).
Person opening a door with smart phone
dowell / Getty Images

The Google Home app now supports Nest and Yale smart locks, meaning you can add these locks to your Google-powered smart home setup and control them from your iPhone. Home automation is undoubtedly convenient, but are smart locks, which provide the main security for where you live, really a good idea?

Smart locks, in concert with smart doorbell cameras, will unlock your front door automatically when you arrive home, let you check whether you left the door unlocked (and lock it again if you did), and even let you check who just rang the doorbell. But they can be hacked, and there are all kinds of unintended consequences, like alerting homeowners to pending FBI raids. Yes, you read that right. 

"The most serious risk, I think," John Brownlee, editor of health magazine Folks, told Lifewire via Twitter, "isn’t hackers or thieves—there [are] easier ways to break-in. It’s law-enforcement taking advantage of back doors to sidestep due process."

Advantages of Smart Locks

Smart locks, like all smart home gadgets, let you remote control and automate your appliances. Using an app on your phone, you can activate and dim lights, switch on your heating, play music, and more. Because these devices are controlled by apps, they can be automated, then triggered by talking to your Google Home, Alexa, or HomePod smart speakers, for example. Automations can also be grouped into "scenes."

A basic scene might be for bedtime. It could turn off all your lights, then switch on your bedside lamp. It could lock the doors and turn down the heating. You can trigger scenes from afar because your smart devices are connected to the internet, which lets you receive alerts from sensors on your smart doorbell, remote-view the door-cam on your phone, and even to speak to visitors.

Other tricks include unlocking the door to let a delivery person drop a parcel in the hallway, or granting temporary access to a friend/cleaner/repairperson.

"[The] real-world odds of a potential burglar using a sophisticated hack to enter your home are vanishingly slim."

Dangers of Smart Locks

You probably already came up with plenty of scary possibilities. One risk is that your various devices are connected to the internet. 

Devices certified to use with Apple’s HomeKit are protected—commercial HomeKit products have to contain Apple’s Apple Authentication Coprocessor. But many other cameras and switches connect directly to your Wi-Fi network, and can often be accessed by anyone who inputs the default password. Your security cameras, then, may actually be broadcasting to the web.

Now, let’s consider smart locks. These not only have to resist physical attacks, just like regular door locks, they also have to resist hacking attempts. But unlike regular break-ins, an intruder doesn’t need to stand on the porch to do it.

On the other hand, smart locks hacks are unlikely. "[The] real-world odds of a potential burglar using a sophisticated hack to enter your home, versus simply relying on the most popular manner of breaking into a door—by force, using something like a trusty crowbar—are vanishingly slim," writes Wirecutter’s Jon Chase.

Smart locks work via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and therefore require power. Be aware that your lock will need to be recharged, or have its batteries replaced every few months. But don’t worry if they go dead. You can just use a good old-fashioned key to get into your home.

Unexpected Consequences

While you might not have to worry too much about hackers, you should take a close look at the lock vendor itself. Earlier this year, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) found that the Ring doorbell app for Android was "packed with third-party trackers."

These trackers were sending the “names, private IP addresses, mobile network carriers, persistent identifiers, and sensor data on the devices of paying customers” to analytics and marketing companies. Cameras and locks are at the heart of any home security setup, so you really have to trust the company behind the hardware and the software.

Black businessman using computer in server room
Erik Isakson / Getty Images 

On the other hand, there are some unusual benefits to having your home wired up. According to The Intercept, in 2017 a smart doorbell user was able to spot FBI agents who were about to serve a search warrant. 

"Through the Wi-Fi doorbell system, the subject of the warrant remotely viewed the activity at his residence from another location and contacted his neighbor and landlord regarding the FBI’s presence there," states an FBI technical analysis document on the consequences of connected devices for law enforcement.

The risks for smart locks, then, are probably not the ones you first think of. While they can be hacked, it’s more likely a burglar would break a window, meaning the real danger is to your privacy, not your jewelry.