A home that runs itself, an abundance of saved time and money – these are the benefits that smart homes promise. But are they secure? And is South Africa ready to embrace the trend? Not without some serious caveats, writes Trevor Coetzee, regional director, South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, Intel Security.
The results of the Intel Security International Internet of Things Smart Home Survey are in. The survey polled over 9000 consumers in nine countries of various economic and developmental standings, and the results show that people are excited about the prospect of bringing IoT solutions into their homes, but that they also have concerns about the safety of these devices. And rightly so.
Smart homes offer many benefits for homeowners. Firstly, they can reduce the admin associated with managing your home, giving you valuable insights into the running costs of your water and electricity, for example. Secondly, by automating certain processes through IoT applications, you free up time.
Mainstreaming smart in SA
Less time spent managing the home means more family time. Globally consumers know this and are hungry to access these benefits. Three out of four respondents expect smart homes to improve their quality of life, believing these innovations will help them spend more time with loved ones and by themselves. But, although South Africa was not part of this survey, we know that the local market tends to lag behind our global counterparts. If we are to see widespread local adoption of smart homes, manufacturers will have to overcome a number of factors, including:
1. Price sensitivity: South Africans are increasingly price-sensitive. GDP growth has slowed while inflation climbs, and all segments of the market are feeling the pressure. Concerns around share of wallet means less money for luxuries like connected HD TV.
The cost of the devices is only one component. Additionally, cost of data in South Africa is still comparatively high. Until broadband connections abound, are people going to try running a smart home on a 3G connection?
An additional cost-benefit analysis comes into play even if your connection concerns are addressed; People will begin asking themselves whether they want to keep satellite television or swap to something like Netflix on a smart TV. It is not a given that smart devices will win that battle.
2. Product lifecycle: Because of this price-sensitivity, consumers may be swayed by the lure of smart products for new purchases, but I don’t believe we’re likely to see a surge in local consumers upgrading non-smart objects that still function. The costs of upgrading means that most can’t afford to just “smart home themselves”.
3. Interoperability: These devices need to talk to each other fairly seamlessly to overcome the fears of your average South African consumer. If you have a smart fridge, car, thermostat, and connected CCTV and alarm system, do you need five different apps to manage it all? You would have to be an IT genius to really enjoy your smart home, and that is a big learning curve to overcome.
4. Security: To date there is no common framework, no industry-wide policies or criteria to standardise these devices on a security platform. Consider a home with 20 connected devices. That means 20 chip manufacturers, software developers, and cloud providers. What happens when there is a security patch needed? Whose responsibility is that patch? Or do we leave it up to the end user
These inherent vulnerabilities are a concern for a homeowner and their employers. From an enterprise perspective, if an employer takes his laptop home and his network is compromised through a hacked fridge, that creates easy access to corporate data, circumventing all the carefully implemented company network firewalls and protections.
Threats and vulnerabilities
Having said this, we can count on the fact that prices will come down and “tech-savviness” will go up as smart home products proliferate, so I believe the most critical concern is security. This needs to be pre-built into everything IoT. When things start interlinking in the home, we need to make sure that the data shared upstream is secure. Personally, I would relish the opportunity to use IoT solutions to see my home’s energy use. But access to this data is simultaneously a threat, as a would-be thief could use this to tell if I am currently home. Having video feeds from the house would put my mind at ease when a false alarm is triggered at my home, but it could also allow snoopers a view of my life, my home, and family.
The survey respondents share these fears: 66 percent said they were very concerned about cybersecurity, despite the fact that 77 percent believe smart homes will be as common as smartphones within a decade. Most (75 percent) are anxious about using passwords to manage their smart homes, believing that fingerprints (54 percent), voice recognition (46 percent), and iris recognition (42 percent) offer good options for securing the smart home.
Weighing pros and cons
The survey found that consumers want security to be convenient, integrated and simplified for them: 89 percent would choose to secure their smart homes through a single, integrated security package. At the same time though, consumers are more likely to accept certain risks that enterprise wouldn’t. They are benefits-driven, and generally less risk-averse. As many as 54 percent of respondents said they might be willing to share their personal and device usage data in exchange for coupons and discounts.
Ultimately, any connected device is a potential access point – into our network, our information, and our homes themselves. In this way, a smart appliance is as vulnerable as a PC, maybe more so if certain corners are cut in the production phase. And with the pace that these connected products are being brought to market, we can be assured that cyber criminals are looking for the loopholes they will introduce into our homes.
Trevor Coetzee, regional director, South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, Intel Security