New privacy concerns as homes become smart homes

Don't Waste Your Money
Posted at 12:57 PM, May 19, 2017

Forget the old TV show "The Jetsons." The voice-activated smart home of the future is already here.

All you need is a few gadgets, a control center and your voice, and you can control dozens of things in your house.

That's because Amazon's Echo—and the similar Google Home—is about to change our lives dramatically.  Despite what many people thought when they were first released, these little canisters are not just gadgets to play music or give you the weather forecast.

Companies will make your home "smart"

Chris Compton is CEO of Smart Home HQ, one of the many companies that turns homes in to smart homes.

"Alexa, set kitchen lights to 100 percent," he said. 

And as if by magic they all turned up to full brightness.

Compton demonstrated how you can turn on and change the color of room lights, and turn room vents on and off, all with a control panel in the front hall, your smartphone or simply by speaking to Alexa, Amazon Echo's digital assistant.

"It even gives you smart vents," Compton said. "You can turn the heat or A/C up or down in various rooms, and it helps maintain an equal temperature throughout the home."

Have boogie fever? You can even turn your family room into a disco. Compton pulled out his phone, turned on music and the room broke into a multi-color visual experience.

"And the lights even synchronize to the music," he said.

Security equipment for your safety

But security is just as important.

You have cameras showing the creepy guy outside your front door (and thanks to smart doorbells, you can get a doorbell alert sent to your phone no matter where you are in the world).

You get water leak sensors that also alert your phone if the refrigerator or water heater develops a leak, even when you are hundreds of miles away on vacation.

"This little device has metal tabs on it, and when it senses water, it sends pushover notifications to let you know that something is wrong," Compton said, demonstrating one tool.

And you can even choose to have the sound of loud barking dogs blare if someone ventures up to your home at night. We tested it, and it sounded like three German Shepherds and a Rottweiller were ready for dinner in the kitchen.

Homeowners who already have camera setups, such as Jennifer Leimberger, love the feeling of safety they get.

"You can just sit in your chair and watch everything that's going on, you don't have to keep going to the window anymore to know what's outside,"  she said.

Privacy concerns growing

Of course, all this convenience comes with concerns about our privacy.

Apolonio Garcia is the president of HealthGuard IT Security. Garcia says one problem is that most people use the “default” settings and passwords on most internet devices in their home. He says that’s a big mistake

“There are a few simple things you can do," Garcia said. “One is to make sure you change the password and user names on the devices. The other thing you can do is make sure you secure your wireless network.”

Garcia suggests “splitting” your modem, so that one WiFi signal is used for laptops, iPads and other devices (especially if you have kids or visitors), and the other WiFi signal is used for secure features like security cameras and baby monitors.

With a Smart TV, Garcia said if you are concerned, you should go into your TV’s settings, and look for the section that allows you to disconnect your TV from the cloud, or limit what is shared.

(Consumer Reports also recently compiled a cheat sheetfor how to turn off information sharing from most major TV brands.)              

Privacy concerns? You can set your own password on all the devices, and for true privacy, experts say don't install cameras in your living room, family room, or (obviously) bedrooms.

What's the cost?

Still interested in building a smart home? The cost, professionally installed and set up: $1,000 - $2,000, depending on how many gadgets you want (the central control panel itself is $375, and it is needed if you wish to tie everything together).

But you can put together a small DIY version for about $200 per gadget, with an Echo, video doorbell, cameras, and WiFi-controlled lights. The gadgets won't all be interconnected as in a fully smart home, but it is a start.

For about $800, you can be on your way into the future.

If this sounds expensive, remember that a new roof is over $5,000, and a central air conditioning unit costs $3,000. So this isn't that outrageous.

And that way you don't waste your money.


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