'Smart Homes' Are Still Catching Up to Cloud Living

Tech writer Stacey Higginbotham (right) shows ABCs Neal Karlinsky (left) how the devices in her home work together.PlayABC News
WATCH 'Smart Homes,' the Future of High-Tech Living

In an era when cars can parallel park themselves, cell phones can talk and drones can take video, it’s not surprising that “smart homes” might be the next step in our “connected” lives.

Smart home gadgets are poised to be the next big things—sales of smart gadgets are expected to exceed 36 million units in the next two years, according to Park Associates Research Firm.

But can the technology used to turn our homes into wireless nerve centers stand up to the challenge?

Tech writer Stacey Higginbotham lives in a “smart home” in Texas. Her devices and appliances are all connected to each other and to the Internet, which means she can control them remotely from her phone.

Her side door is wired to a keypad -- though Higginbotham still carries keys with her in case the keypad goes on the fritz. Her gadgets are voice activated. She has a robotic vacuum cleaner, a touch-sensitive kitchen sink and window shades that close on command. She has an app that will open and close her garage door, and even alert her if she left it open, and then close it for her from miles away. Even her light bulbs are “smart,” and could be set to all sorts of colors from “deep sea” to “sunset.”

“You have to buy a starter kit with three light bulbs and a little bridge that you plug into the router and that’s $200, and each additional light bulb is $60,” Higginbotham said, noting the bulbs last 22 years. "They’re LEDS. They save you energy.”

Higginbotham also has a wearable device that looks like a ring on her finger called “Ringly,” which can alert her when she has a call or a text, among other things.

But while living in a smart home has its perks, not all the features in Higginbotham’s home worked perfectly every time. One of the voice-command devices she uses is the Amazon Echo. Cloud-connected, it’s designed to turn on music, look up email and various other tasks through a “personality” called Alexa. When asked about “Nightline,” Alexa instantly provided a correct response, but when asked what the stock market is doing, she drew a blank.

“If you live in a smart home, you have got to be prepared to live in a home that is a bit of trial and error process,” Higginbotham said. “I spend probably an hour a week just troubleshooting my house, and that’s because I have a good 40 gadgets in here.”

But there’s another concern. At a time when it seems anyone, from A-list celebrities to international government databases, can be hacked, is upgrading to smart homes opening consumers up to security risks?

“People say that people can control your house, but the likelihood of someone coming in and being like, ‘I’m going to attack your network,’ that’s a lot of effort,” Higginbotham said.

To test it, Higginbotham gave “Nightline” permission to allow professional hacker Amir Etemadieh to try to hack into her home. Etemadieh, whose real job is to help companies find weaknesses in their wireless products, got to work from his car parked outside Higginbotham’s home.

Etemadieh explained that hacking into her home was a two-step process. First step was to get into her Wi-Fi network, something he called “the handshake.” The second step was to run what information Etemadieh found through a decoding program to crack her password, which proved to be more difficult.

Even now, weeks later, Etemadieh’s hacker program still hadn’t cracked Higginbotham’s password, so she gave it to him for the sake of the experiment. Once he had her password, Etemadieh showed he was able to get into the majority of her devices through one main hub. He could make her blender turn on and off, unlock her back door, turn her lights off, make the blinds go up -- all remotely.

“I don’t like it. ... Although if someone really wants to get into your house, you can pick a lock,” Higginbotham said.

Etemadieh said the best way to protect yourself against someone hacking into your network is to keep software up-to-date and have a strong password "that’s unique and contains special characters."

"Your best bet is a password that’s over 15 characters that contains numbers, letters, upper case, lower case and special characters," he added.

Smart home companies are already all over the security issue. In fact, a forced software update to Higginbotham’s main hub kept Etemadieh out of her network completely. But it’s an ongoing fight, and the battlefield becomes your home in a world where everything is connected.