When convenience trumps security: Why smart locks in the CNET Smart Home make me uncomfortable

Our hunt for the right lock for the CNET Smart Home came up empty and left me feeling insecure.

I just wanted to go home. But there I was, stuck in the CNET Smart Home, waiting for the ghost in the machine to unlock the front door and get it over with.

My goal was to choose a lock for the CNET Smart Home. We've been making our living lab in Kentucky smarter piece by piece for awhile now, and recently, we've centralized our efforts around the Amazon Echo -- a WiFi-enabled speaker that responds to voice commands -- with the hope of making many connected pieces work together.

But our search for the right connected deadbolt fell short. Here's why:

Reason No. 1: There isn't a standout

You can find plenty of good smart locks out there. We've given positive reviews to models from August, Schlage and Yale.

The August smart lock won't work with Amazon Echo.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

In his review, Rich Brown called August the lock to beat, and it remains the most feature-rich of the bunch. The problem is that it doesn't integrate with Amazon Echo, IFTTT, SmartThings or even Wink. An update that will add Apple HomeKit support is due soon, which will give it some interconnectedness, but we're not relying on HomeKit for the Smart Home -- even though it allows controls through Siri, the digital assistant on your iPhone. It's not reliable enough.

None of the other locks integrate directly with Amazon Echo yet either, but Schlage, Yale, and Kwikset offer a workaround via IFTTT -- the rule-making platform that ties many smart-home devices together. We ruled out Kwikset until the Kevo gets its promised security upgrade, leaving Yale and Schlage in contention.

Neither the Yale Real Living Lock nor the Schlage Touchscreen Deadbolt offers any connectivity on its own, you have to connect them to the cloud using a separate hub such as SmartThings. You also don't get advanced smart features like one touch entry, Bluetooth compatibility, or temporary digital keys or codes for guests with either lock. Both locks are competent, but relatively unexciting as smart locks go.

The Yale Real Living Touchscreen Deadbolt works with Wink and SmartThings.

Colin West McDonald/CNET

The fact that there isn't a clear cut winner is part of the problem -- it's hard to build your smart home with solutions that feel temporary from the start. Whichever lock we chose could be immediately replaced once a lock debuts with Echo integration. And as it turns out, the workaround through IFTTT isn't satisfactory.

Reason No. 2: Echo integration isn't there yet

About how I got stuck in the CNET Smart Home...

We ended up picking the Schlage Century lock over the one from Yale, largely because we like its look -- it's a toss-up otherwise.

As a refresher, you wake the Amazon Echo by saying the word "Alexa" then speak your command. Since the Schlage deadbolt I installed doesn't integrate with the Echo directly, that means I needed to find another way to integrate it with the other devices in the house.

We liked the look of the Schlage Century lock.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

The Echo does work directly with SmartThings, which we already have. Unfortunately, the Echo only offers direct voice commands with lights and switches routed through SmartThings. It won't recognize locks. Same with the Wink Hub.

I turned to IFTTT and built a recipe that should unlock the Schlage when I say, "Alexa, trigger unlock the front door." Alexa has an IFTTT channel, but you need to add the word "trigger" to issue a custom IFTTT command.

Except when I tried it, it didn't work. The command needs to travel from the Echo, to our Wi-Fi router, to the IFTTT servers, back through Wi-Fi to the SmartThings hub, then finally to the deadbolt. That means lots of places for the command to get lost. IFTTT is usually a reliable way to connect smart devices. Though, as Ry Crist noticed when building IFTTT into the CNET Smart Home, delays do happen.

I tried other commands to see if the problem was specific to the Schlage lock. I said, "Alexa, trigger good night" hoping the lights would shut off and the thermostat would turn the temp down as it was supposed to. Nothing happened.

Roughly 20 minutes later, as I started packing up to go home, all of the lights in the house shut off -- the good night command had finally gone through. Thinking IFTTT was finally working, I gave the command to unlock the door one more time. Still, nothing happened.

I continued to pack up, reassuring myself that I could try again tomorrow, when I had a frightening thought: what if the unlock command was going through the same delay, and would work 15 to 30 minutes later? I was about to leave the CNET Smart Home, and I was the last one out. What I didn't want was for the door to automatically unlock 20 minutes after I'd locked up and driven away.

Reason No. 3: Security concerns

After continuing to get no response from IFTTT, I turned off all Schlage-related recipes in IFTTT's menu, turned on alerts so I'd get a notification if the recipe ran, waited some more to see if the recipe would go through, and then eventually I gave up and left.

In the morning, the door was still locked, and I never got a notification that it unlocked. That next day, the IFTTT recipe even started working right. It still took anywhere from a few seconds to half a minute to go through, but nowhere near the delays of the night before.

Still, the lock had spooked me. This issue might be a bit of a fluke, but it illustrates the reason the IFTTT workaround for Amazon Echo is far from ideal, especially on a security device like a lock. The small convenience of a voice command probably isn't worth the uncertainty around whether the door will unlock itself of not.

An always-listening speaker poses other security concerns. For example, any stranger within range of the Echo can tell Alexa to open the door.

I'm not sure how likely that is. A potential burglar would need to recognize the Echo and know how to use it. They'd need to know your exact unlock phrase. The less intuitive use of the word "trigger" might help us here. They would also need the Echo to understand their command. I tried shouting at it from outside the house, on the other side of a closed window. The Echo's blue light came along around its top edge, but it couldn't make out the command.

Still, this very concern might be why the Echo doesn't have native lock integrations yet.

Inconvenient convenience

Still searching for a lock that works well with the Echo.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are benefits from the existing crop of smart locks, remotely locking and unlocking the door chief among them. I can also imagine voice commands being useful when you hands are full, or if you have a physical impairment that makes it hard to move around the house.

For us, none of those pluses are enough to outweigh the uncertainty around the delayed response time I experienced. That's why we're going to wait for the technology to become more reliable before we install a smart lock permanently in the CNET Smart Home.

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