Smart home security systems: cause for alarm?

Smart-home security is becoming increasingly sophisticated, with the latest camera systems even able to tell who’s a threat to your property and who’s not. But as the technology grows ever smarter, so too do the thieves, who’ve found new ways to disable the home WiFi that many smart alarm systems rely upon. So how is the industry fighting back?

Home alarm technology has moved well beyond the simple sensor-based systems that used to trigger alarm bells and warning calls to the vendor or local police station. Nowadays, self-installed systems that cost a tiny fraction of those professionally installed kits allow you to watch live camera footage from your smartphone, monitor visitors to your door and remotely trigger alarms to scare off intruders. Systems such as Google’s Nest Cam IQ also exploit the enormous processing power of cloud computing to perform complex analysis, scanning the face of visitors to your property and automatically identifying residents who pose no threat, and strangers who potentially do.

These modern security systems are becoming “home gateways”, according to Francis D’Souza, Thales’s Vice-President of Strategy and Marketing for Analytics and IoT Solutions: they can control everything from cameras to video doorbells to the controls on the automatic garage door. But having multiple, interconnected security devices dotted around the home requires significant internet bandwidth. 

“If you want to use video detection and you don’t want your alarm to be triggered by a cat, for example, you need to be able to analyze it and to be able to say that’s a cat and not an intruder,” says D’Souza. “High bandwidth gives you more intelligence and more security, and people will typically hook it up to their WiFi system at home.”

However, that dependence on WiFi causes security headaches of its own. Firstly, WiFi is notoriously unreliable. Connections drop, devices such as microwaves cause interference, and when people change broadband provider they don’t always know how to change the settings of their security devices, leaving homes unprotected. Worse, criminals have found ways to disrupt WiFi connections.

“A lot of burglars have figured out ways in which they can jam the WiFi of your home,” says D’Souza. “Or they can actually break into the home WiFi, and by breaking in they can turn off your alarm system and break into the home. These are elements that are causing companies to consider not using WiFi to hook up systems, but using cellular networks instead.”

Switching devices to use 4G or even the latest 5G networks brings many advantages, according to D’Souza. First, there’s no shortage of bandwidth on the 4G or 5G networks, so there’s no problem with relaying video feeds, for example. Second, the cellular connection can be configured at the factory and the consumer doesn’t need to worry about fiddling with settings. “You turn on your device and it’s connected, you don’t have to deal with WiFi passwords and set-up and wonder if you’re doing the thing right or wrong,” he says.

However, the biggest advantage of mobile data connections over WiFi is foiling the technically advanced thieves. “It’s very, very, very difficult to hack a cellular network. It needs military-grade technologies. It’s practically impossible to hack into a cellular network compared to WiFi,” says D’Souza.

“That’s why these devices are moving to cellular networks: they need higher bandwidth, they’re easier to set up and harder to break into.” 

There’s one final factor that’s driving the alarm manufacturers to move to 4G, and eventually 5G technology. “A lot of the [existing] alarm panels are connected on legacy 2G and 3G networks, and these will be rapidly turned off,” says D’Souza.