How is your data used with home automation systems?

In a digital world everyone must be aware how their data can/will be used against them in the future. With home automation systems this is no different. However, before we look at how we can protect ourselves from home automation systems we must first look at how are data is used by them.

There are multiple types of home automation systems, some that require an internet connection to function, while others that have a local mini server, essentially a minicomputer, in your home along requiring some or not internet connection

In this post I break down the differences in how data flows and how it is used and then we summarize our preference for keeping your data secure when you have a home automation system, which is to have an internet independent system.

Home automation is an ever-changing field, and every single day a new or existing company has come up with something new and innovative, that they swear is going to be game changing. This makes it hard to navigate home automation. Arguably now, due to Covid complications, times at home have changed for every civilization on the earth.

With more digitization you have more hands in your pockets and your mind it’s hard to find a foundation of understanding. How do you keep finances managed with all the monthly subscription fees? How do you make sure you pick and automation system that isn’t going to end at the first sign of trouble, leaving your stranded with defunct equipment and feeling ripped off? Some of you may have heard stories from homeowners that have automation systems that they cannot control, such as at your parents’ house. The truth is they overwhelm us with the technical details and the features without unveiling the long-term features of any system we get, and unfortunately without lots of cash on hand or global customer base, most companies in the automation industry do not have long-term staying power and will leave you and you stranded in the future.

Another concern for the technically savvy, is that your automation system maybe actually spying on your and having you and your family’s behaviours, preferences and data sold to other parties and marketers. Gone are the days where you found something you liked through coincidence and self-research. Even the best of use can get easily influenced when somebody has our data.

So, what do you do? Quite honestly there isn’t a silver bullet to home automation systems but what we recommend at TSB is to build a strong foundation of knowledge in the industry. For us the most important foundation is understand the flow of data, and where possible, no matter the system keeps the data in your control as much as possible. We’ll explain data flows it in a very basic format which can gloss over technical details but reach out to us if you have more to add.

Typical data flows from INPUT (I) -> CONTROLLER -> OUTPUT (O).

All information, whether it is your laptop, or phone, work in this manner. You touch something which is an INPUT(I), which then goes to motherboard, which is the CONTROLLER, where more processing takes place, and then something happens on your screen which is the OUTPUT (O). This is pretty much the standard method of operation for most electronics today.

The INPUT (I) is variable and can be multiple things either in either physical or digital format. Sometimes the inputs can be things you can’t see or feel, for example another code running, a time of day, humidity or motion. In more advanced controllers, inputs can be dependencies from different calculations and controllers. Regardless something needs to provide a starting point for an automation sequence to start. Now what is the automation, that depends. In this case we are discussing home automation, so the automation sequence for our example will be turning on a light. Using this as a reference your inputs for this automation sequence can be multiple things.
1. You touch the light switch sending the on signal
2. You touch the screen on your phone to trigger the app.
3. You trigger a motion sensor
4. There is a pre-programmed pre-determined logic trigger to turn on the light

Next is the controller, where the automation request is handled. At the controller is where the automation occurs. This can either occur within a controller locally in your house or it can be on a server at the manufacturer data centre. So, for example you tough the light switch, with a cloud-based controller the signal has to go to the internet server and then come back to the switch to turn on. With a local controller the decision goes from the light switch directly a local controller in your house and then back to your switch. Of course, turning on/off a light from a switch does not need an automation controller that is advanced. However, if your INPUT is from an app or a digital source, the command must get to a controller to interpret and decide what to do. From there the signal goes back to the switch to execute the automation command.

The OUTPUT (O) is the output of the automation command. So, in our light example the output would be the light turning on, whether through relays or a dimmer function.

So in this light example I believe a professional automation system should never be cloud based. This means that your automation system should be able to work without the internet 100% of the time. We believe this for 5 main reasons:

1. Independence. Your home is off the internet grid so will keep working regardless of what happens to external servers or the internet.
2. Privacy. Most local based systems do not act as data spies for their manufacturers. Instead, you, the homeowner, keep and control your data as your are supposed to.
3. Speed. Local systems are faster than cloud-based systems. It’s hard to notice the difference with fast network connections, but with slow more complication automation sequences this does happen.
4. Control. You will likely be able to control/program the system with some training thereby savings money from having to hire expensive integrator technicians.
5. Money. There are typically no subscriptions fees for non-cloud based services. Saving you money.

We honestly hope this helped you get a little better understanding of home automation systems and if you want to learn more please watch our TSB’s Loxone 8 video introduction series, with video 1 and 2, focusing more on the automation industry framework in general.

Inder has been drafting and coding since he was a teenager. For the past 6 years, he has been devoted to remote automation systems. This includes discovering what they can do and new ways to simplify everyday tasks. With a strong comprehension and appreciation for information technology, Inder likes finding practical solutions to help homeowners and businesses enjoy their personal and professional lives.

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