The dawn of the smart devices — and eventually the smart home — changed consumer lives forever. But while smart homes come with great perks to make your life convenient, there are also times when smart devices do the exact opposite instead.
Cybersecurity and privacy are major talking points for smart home enthusiasts, but it turns out a lot more can go wrong with these gadgets than malware.
From malfunctions to situations no one saw coming, here are five times having a smart home went terribly wrong for owners.
1. When Roomba Does the Opposite of Cleaning
Jesse Newton had every parent’s nightmare come true when his four-year-old child climbed into his bed smelling of feces.
However, the child’s exposure to the excrement wasn’t through the usual means — this time, it involved a Roomba smart vacuum.
Unbeknownst to Newton, just before the Roomba’s automated cleaning schedule started at 1:30am the family dog defecated on the living room rug. As the Roomba went on its cleaning route, it brought the dog’s mess with it — spreading the offending material across the entire house.
This isn’t the only story of unfortunate interactions between dog feces and smart vacuums, but it is perhaps the most viral re-telling of these incidents.
You can see Newton’s full story (and even an illustrated map!) in his Facebook post below:
So, last week, something pretty tragic happened in our household. It's taken me until now to wrap my head around it and…
2. When Alexa Becomes a Kid’s Personal Santa
Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa has accidentally made some expensive purchases for owners with children. One highly publicized incident was the case of a six-year-old who ordered a $170 dollhouse and four pounds of cookies through Alexa — with her parents only realizing the mistake after the products arrived.
This scenario is reminiscent of kids who spend hundreds of dollars on microstransactions in mobile games on their parents’ devices. Of course, in Alexa’s case, there are significantly more expensive purchases at stake.
Luckily, owners can require a PIN code for voice purchases, or even disable voice purchases altogether.
Alexa, as well as other virtual assistants and smart devices, have been triggered by unauthorized voice commands in the past. There have been multiple reports of devices responding to voices on the television.
In the case of the six-year-old and her dollhouse, some viewers of a new broadcast about the incident had dollhouses of their own added to their cart after a reporter said “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse.” Fortunately, no purchases were made as the Amazon Echo requires confirmation before sending the order through. This feature luckily prevented even more unintentional dollhouse orders.
3. When Firmware Update Ruins Smart Locks
Smart locks are a useful tool that can help manage access to your home without the need to create physical copies of keys. But they aren’t infallible.
The usual concerns around smart locks generally revolve around their security. Some people worry that hackers can gain control of their lock and use it to access their home.
But one incident made it into international headlines — because the smart lock disaster came from the company that makes them. This error resulted in one of the most publicized smart device failures yet.
Lockstate drew the ire of disgruntled customers in August for rendering some of their smart locks unusable. The company rolled out a firmware update for their RemoteLock Wi-Fi-enabled smart locks which broke their functionality.
The locks in questions allow you to share a keypad code with those you want to allow to access your home. You can change this code from your smartphone, without having to be physically near the lock. It’s why many Airbnb hosts considered this smart lock ideal when renting out their apartments.
But the company’s firmware update rendered these keypads useless. Luckily, owners could still use a physical key to get inside their properties. However, owners living in different regions had to deal with Airbnb customers who had no way of getting into the rental.
So what did LockState do? The company offered to either replace the devices (in exchange for the broken model) or to manually fix the software on the lock (a process which took several days).
We reached out to LockState to find out what happened in the days after the firmware updated. According to the company, 500 people – 2%of their customers – were affected.
“In ten days’ time, over 80 percent of the affected locks were back using the remote management capabilities of the lock after being flashed or replaced and in 20 days we had worked with all the affected customers to get them back up and running,”
the company told MakeUseOf.com.
But what are they doing to prevent this happening again?
The company says that they adjusted the updating process. An update now has to go through multiple checkpoints and approvals to go through.
Their biggest failsafe now though is their firmware compatibility.
“We adjusted our firmware so that it is operable on any of our lock models as a failsafe. This completely removes the risk of human error in our firmware deployments,” the company says.
“Any company can make mistakes. The real measure of a company’s value is how they stand behind their products and take care of their customers.”
4. When Server Failure Leaves Smart Homes Unusable
A great feature of smart devices is their internet connectivity — allowing you to connect devices throughout a network and access multiple web services. But believe it or not, there is a downside to this.
Many smart home owners choose to automate their homes using IF This Then That (IFTTT), which allows users to chain together commands across platforms. This can make running your smart home incredibly efficient. For example, when you start your wake up routine with your Google Home, IFTTT can coordinate your smart coffee machine to begin brewing a cup.
In order to work efficiently, these devices often rely on cloud services. So what happens when these cloud services go down?
People found out during the AWS outage, which left some smart home users in the dark (literally). Due to IFTTT’s reliance on these cloud services, the platform suffered a severe outage.
At the time of the outage, multiple users tweeted IFTTT to tell the company that they could no longer switch on the lights in their smart home.
— Stuart Thomas (@stuartthomas) February 28, 2017
I can’t control my house via google home bc AWS/IFTTT is down. UUGH!
— wbyoko (@wbyoko) February 28, 2017
Even for a simple action like turning lights on, users had to wait for the three-hour outage to end.
5. When Smart Cars Lock Their Drivers Out
Smart home ecosystems sometimes extend past your front door to your garage — through your smart car. Connected cars are part of the current motor vehicle revolution that is seeing smarter, and even autonomous, automobiles on the roads.
It’s one of the most exciting developments in smart technology, but it comes with its own downsides. Most people worry about trusting a computer to drive, or about hackers taking control.
But in the case of one driver, it was a much more unexpected issue.
In January, Ryan Negri found himself locked out of his Model S in the Arizona desert after his Tesla app lost connectivity. The Tesla app allows users to control their car without their keys — including the ability to lock, unlock, start and switch off the vehicle. This is usually very useful, but a lot can go wrong if you don’t have a spare pair of physical keys.
Negri found this out the hard way after he exited his vehicle in the desert. With no cellphone reception, his smartphone couldn’t reconnect to the car and unlock it again.
Stranded 6 miles from home, 2 miles from cell service; our Saturday morning. The thought was to go for a quick drive to take some photos of the freshly-fallen mountain snow. Having only my phone in my pocket, I unlocked and started the car with it, and we left. 6 miles down the road we decided to turn back, but before that, had to adjust Mozy & Millie's car bed, so I exited the vehicle…bad idea. Need to restart the car now, but, with no cell service, my phone can't connect to the car to unlock it. Even with cell service, the car would also need cell service to receive the signal to unlock. @amymnegri, the hero she is, started running to reach cell service height. After about 2 miles she reached signal and called a friend for a ride to the house to grab the key fob. The key that will always be with me (now) when I drive that car.
Luckily, he was not alone and had some help getting cell reception again. Negri posted about the incident on Instagram, saying that he had learnt his lesson.
Other Ways Smart Devices Can Go Wrong?
So much can go right when you have the perfect smart devices, but as these five incidents show us, so much can go wrong.
Many of these incidents took users by surprise, falling outside of the realm of cybersecurity and privacy. Rather, it turns out that there are a lot more kinks we need to work out before we can trust smart devices to work without any unusual malfunctions.
We are likely to hear about more of these malfunctions as smart technology spreads into more homes. But hopefully companies can learn from it to prevent these (sometimes hilarious) occurrences in the future.
Do you know of any times smart homes have gone terribly wrong? Do these incidents change your trust of smart devices? Let us know in the comments below!