Smart locks or bollocks? The good and the bad of key-free convenience

The problems of putting the security of your home in the hands of your smartwatch
Why smart locks are dumb ideas

The lock is one of humankind's better ideas: it's been around without too many changes for around 4,000 years, and it does a pretty good job. So it was just a matter of time before somebody decided to overcomplicate it. Say hello to smart locks!

A smart lock is like a normal lock, but a lot more expensive. Instead of keys you unlock it wirelessly using a Bluetooth dongle, a smartphone app or a wearable device, and if you break up with someone, rent your property out or move house you can reprogram it to keep undesirables out and to let guests in. At least, that's the theory. But there are a few issues to think about too.

Smart lock security: it really doesn't matter

As owners of £100,000 Range Rovers can tell you, there are problems with keyless keys. They can be jammed, so that the lock signal never reaches the lock. They can be captured, so their transmissions can be rebroadcast by other devices. They can be decoded, so that other devices can recreate their unique signals. And the keyless fobs can be stolen. All of these methods tend to result in an empty driveway.

Essential reading: Smart home of the future

Could smart locks suffer similar issues? Of course they could, and if they're on smartphones there are additional risks in the form of malware and phishing-style fraud. But more importantly, no amount of authentication and encryption or battery backups can make your windows any less breakable, your doors less kickable or your phone less stealable. As the cliché goes, locks only keep honest people out. Villains tend to be lazy, and if your lock is too smart they'll find a lower-tech way in.

The main draw is convenience: you never need to carry keys again, apart from the keys you'll carry as a backup in case the smart bit of the lock doesn't work or your phone runs out of battery.

But sarcasm aside, there are multiple benefits. If you're a landlord, have people working on your home or tend to have lots of guests, you don't need to shell out for multiple sets of keys or change the locks when your tenants move on or the builders finish up.

You don't need to fumble for keys when you're carrying heavy shopping or screaming children. In some cases the locks have cameras so you can see who's at the door and let them in from wherever you are. They can be helpful to people with disabilities or mobility problems. And you can use the lock as a trigger for other home automation, so for example when you approach the front door the lights go on and the music starts up.

Key concerns

Keyless entry sounds great, but there are plenty of drawbacks too. By its very nature means a smart lock has more potential points of failure than a simple mechanical one. Your home insurer might not accept it. And as car owners know to their cost, if you lose a master key or backup key a replacement will cost a fortune.

There are technological concerns too. It's yet more ecosystem lock-in - what happens if your chosen lock supports the Apple Watch but you want to go Android Wear in a few years from now? - and there are the usual issues of obsolescence and lack of ongoing support that plague most gadgets. Can you be sure that a lock built for iOS 8 will still work on iOS 11, or that the router you buy six years from now will be backwards compatible with the lock you fit today?


And of course there's the issue we encounter far too often, which is that many technologies are really irritating in real life. Take our smart switch, for example. It's an internet-connected, app-controlled power socket that works brilliantly very occasionally. Most of the time it just ignores the app or falls off the network, forcing us to use the real switch on our supposedly smart switch.

If the same brilliance infects smart locks, we'll be spending a big pile of money on keyless locks that we have to carry keys for. That doesn't sound very smart to us.

Would you fit a smart lock to your home? Let us know in our smart home forum discussion – or in the comments below.

1 Comment

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