Why People Don’t Trust Their Smart Home Gadgets

But they’re still using them

Key Takeaways

  • Old and young people adopt new technology—it’s the middle-agers that don’t.
  • Women are more likely to buy smart home gadgets than men.
  • Printers and connected cameras are much less secure than smart assistants and speakers.
  • You can protect yourself, but it requires some effort.
Smart home controls
Elena Pejchinova / Getty Images

A new study offers some interesting insights into how much we trust the smart gadgets that are infesting our homes. Spoiler alert: not much. But despite this, we continue to use them, favoring convenience over privacy or security.

“Most people have a connected home whether they like it or not,” tech journalist and Internet of Things specialist Cate Lawrence told Lifewire via email. At the same time, she says, “most homes are connected rather than smart,” because these gadgets don’t work together in any useful way.

The study also put to bed the old trope where we use our grandfather or grandmother as a stand-in to mean “inexperienced user.” It turns out that old folks are just as likely to adopt new gadgets as youngsters, although they are more careful about it. It’s actually the age group in between that are the most conservative.

“In regard to security, people are right to be concerned."

--Cate Lawrence, Tech journalist and IoT specialist

Which Smart Home Gadgets Do We Buy?

The study, conducted by Dr. Sara Cannizzaro and Professor Rob Procter at the University of Warwick in the UK, was based on a survey of 2101 people. The survey quizzed them on their general awareness of the Internet of Things (IoT), their experience of smart home gadgets, and their trust in the privacy and security of those devices.

First, a few interesting facts about device ownership. By far the most popular smart device is the Wi-Fi-enabled TV, with 40% of respondents owning one. That’s most likely because it’s hard to even buy a non-smart TV these days, though. After that comes smart electric and/or gas meters (29% ownership), but again, there’s less choice whether you use one of those compared to buying an Alexa speaker, for example.

Speaking of smart speakers, 17.5% of respondents own at least one. This is the third most popular category (after TVs and meters). The rest of the list is made up of robot vacuum cleaners (2.6%), smart door locks (1.6%), and even robotic lawnmowers (0.4%). It’s also amusing to see that the internet-connected refrigerator, the oft-cited example of the smart home, is owned by less than 0.7% of respondents.

A/S/L

Quite a few more women (32%) than men (24%) have purchased a device in the past year. Earliest adopters were between 18-24 and over 65, with those in-between lagging when it comes to buying new tech. But once they bought the gadgets, it was the over 65s that were the most reluctant to use them, based on a lack of trust. 

Don’t Trust That Baby-Cam

Overall, reported trust levels were low, both in the competence and “benevolence” of the gadgets and their connected services, as well as the trust in the privacy and security of the devices. Also low was a general satisfaction in so-called “smart” devices. The overall picture here is that people are as interested in smart devices as they are in other gadgets, but are disappointed in their utility, and they don’t trust them not to leak their data to Amazon, Google, Samsung, Apple, or whoever is running the service.

And rightly so, says Lawrence. “In regard to security, people are right to be concerned. Smart home devices can be used to spy on their owners or as a conduit for more nefarious cyberattacks.

“An example is the 2016 Dyn cyberattack,“ she says, “where malware was used to create a botnet of IoT devices, including baby monitors and printers.“

A botnet is a network of compromised computers, controlled by a nefarious actor, and often used in further attacks. Devices like printers, baby monitors, and security cameras are particularly vulnerable as they often ship without good security—often they are open to the internet and require only a default passcode like 1234 to access—and rarely receive security updates.

Ironically, the smart speakers and TVs that we worry about are the least likely to be compromised. “Generally, bigger brands are more likely to perform regular security updates and notify users of any known breaches,” says Lawrence.

You Can Protect Your Smart Home

Lawrence offers some advice to help keep you safe when you use smart and connected devices: 

  • Keep an inventory of all of your smart devices.
  • Use 2FA (two-factor authentication) where possible.
  • Make sure the devices are using encrypted Wi-Fi. 
  • If your router’s admin screen is available via the internet, disable it.
  • Create a guest network on your home Wi-Fi so visitors cannot access your personal devices.
  • Update software and firmware regularly. 
  • Perform regular antivirus and anti-malware checks.

If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. But if you choose to put connected cameras and microphones in your home, you have no choice but to do it, otherwise your “security” cameras will be far from secure. Try to do this on a regular schedule, like when you test your smoke alarms.

The other alternative is to eschew the smart home altogether. While it might be convenient to have your front door unlock automatically when you arrive home or for the house lights to dim and go out at bedtime, there’s no doubting the un-hackable nature of a manual light switch or a good old-fashioned metal key.