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Scouting out a security system that talks to Amazon's Alexa

Now that we've made the Amazon Echo a centerpiece of the CNET Smart Home, we need a security system to match.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
5 min read
Watch this: Better together: Alexa and Scout give DIY security a voice

The CNET Smart Home, a 5,800-square-foot house nestled in the Kentucky countryside, is our place to experiment with connected tech. We share our experiences, good and bad, through a series of build-out posts in hopes of discovering standout products that will actually make your life easier/safer/healthier.

But the process hasn't been seamless. The "smart home" -- a buzzy, but vague term used to describe pretty much anything with remote control or automation capabilities -- is still a pretty new market. It's fast-paced, too, and it demands adaptability from its early adopters.

In other words, some of the products we recommended during the first days of our Smart Home launch just six months ago have already changed in response to shifting trends.

The Amazon Echo is at the center of this transition. What began as a quasi-smart voice control Wi-Fi speaker now works with a wide range of devices. And as the new mascot of the CNET Smart Home, we've redesigned just about everything (from the lights to the thermostats and even the garage door opener) around the Echo and its clever robot spokeswoman, Alexa.

Now we want to see how the Echo handles home security.

Here's what works with the Amazon Echo

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So long, SmartThings

We're currently using Samsung's SmartThings for home security in the CNET Smart Home. It was our hub of choice during the first few weeks of this project because it works with so many devices, and it has an IFTTT channel, an active developer community and direct integration with the Amazon Echo.

Direct integration just means that you can ask Alexa to do something with minimal fuss. For SmartThings that means, "Alexa, do X," rather than, "Alexa, tell SmartThings to do X." While that does save you from having to remember slightly clunkier phrasing, SmartThings doesn't actually manage home security through Alexa very well.

You can't ask Alexa to arm or disarm your SmartThings system; you can't ask Alexa the status of your system or about the most recent security activities. In short, while the Amazon Echo and SmartThings work together, the home security side of their partnership is seriously lacking.

We've also tired of SmartThings as a hub. Yes, it works with an array of smart home products, but the app still doesn't deliver the "easy, universal accessibility" that was originally promised. It would be great if we could easily find and control all sorts of products from different manufacturers through a single app, but the usability of SmartThings' software has stagnated rather than improved.

Can Scout make the cut?

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Here's a list of things you can ask Alexa about your Scout system.

Screenshot by CNET

So we went back to a security system I reviewed in 2014 called Scout that works with the Alexa Skills Kit.

Scout was already a very good system pre-Echo integration. Complete with a siren-equipped hub, a motion sensor, an open/close sensor, a second, fancier open/close sensor with a built-in RFID scanner for fast arming/disarming and a couple of RFID key fobs, as well as an RFID sticker that you can attach to anything, Scout is simple, but it works.

Check out the full review for all of the specifics on Scout, but generally it operates over a mesh network within a 100-foot range, it has a simple, mostly intuitive app and it offers optional cellular backup for $10 per month, as well as a professional monitoring service for $20 per month.

We didn't subscribe to Scout's professional monitoring in the CNET Smart Home, but that would bring this simple system more in line with SimpliSafe, a DIY security company that offers features typically reserved for firms like AT&T and ADT. Scout even announced a partnership with SmartThings to extend its professional monitoring service to SmartThings customers. It also works with IFTTT and Nest Cam, a fantastic $200 home monitoring camera with crisp 1080p live streaming.

The main drawback is that Scout doesn't offer its own camera (yet), so you'd have to spring for a Nest Cam or another standalone camera for live streaming, event-based clips and related push notifications, as well as continuous recording. But, Scout worked so well with the Echo that we'll figure out the whole camera thing separately.

Clever girl

The Skills-level integration means you'll have to say, "Alexa, tell Scout to arm Away Mode" rather than "Alexa, arm Away Mode." It's an annoying extra step you have to remember, but for now Scout is one of the only security systems that works with Alexa at all.

Unlike SmartThings, you can ask Alexa to arm and disarm your Scout system, sound its siren, tell you if your home is currently armed and take other actions.

Getting this set up was as simple as opening the Alexa app, requesting a "passcode," sticking that passcode in the Scout app -- and voila. Near-instant pairing between Scout and the Amazon Echo.

Then, you can ask Alexa all of the phrases in the screenshot above. Make sure you set Home, Away, Vacation and other custom security modes first, though, or nothing will happen.

The only time I ran into an issue was when Alexa didn't hear me over Scout's siren; I was trying to disarm the system using my secret PIN and Alexa had no clue what I was trying to say. In that case, I used the Scout app instead. Otherwise, it worked very well.

Is it safe?

It's worth expanding on the secret PIN concept. Of course there are potential security implications when you're using voice control to arm and disarm your system.

Fortunately, you have to give Alexa a four-digit code whenever you want to disarm the Scout system. That way, someone who might be trying to rob you can't just shout through your door and coax the Amazon Echo into ignoring an opening door or unexpected movement inside your home.

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The Scout hub has a built-in siren.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

There are other security concerns associated with systems like Scout, though. It relies on radio frequencies (RF) to communicate select information, such as when to arm and disarm. As we've reported previously, RF signals are susceptible to a specific security vulnerability called jamming.

Scout explained jamming to me as, "Imagine putting 2 people in a room. If they have a conversation, they will have no problem hearing each other. Add 10 people to that room, and continuing that conversation becomes tougher. Now imagine putting 50 people in the same room, it will be impossible to carry on those conversations over all the noise."

When a system is jammed, burglars essentially overwhelm a security system with a radio signal using the same frequency the system uses. It then becomes hard for the base unit to discern individual signals from the systems' various components.

"The way we handle [jamming]," the Scout team says, "is by receiving 'heart beat' messages from the sensors over a set interval. If a statistically significant number of 'heart beat' messages fail to reach the hub (and in turn our servers), we dispatch a notification to the customer informing them of the situation."

That approach won't prevent jamming, but it would theoretically alert you to something suspicious.

Scout is big on custom home security (pictures)

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Scout to the rescue!

Yes, Scout has limitations. I wish it had a dedicated security camera -- a piece of hardware that's been "under development" pretty much since I first reviewed this system in 2014. It's also a little inconvenient to have to say, "Alexa, tell Scout to..." But there are so many commands available at the Skills level compared with SmartThings' direct integration. And for a home that's going all in with the Amazon Echo, that functionality makes all the difference.