Smart Home Subscription Fees and The True Cost of “Free” Services

By: Kirby Smith, Smart Homes Made Simple project consultant, and founder of SunKirb Ideas, LLC

Person sitting at a desk with a tablet and smart phone. Behind the desk is a TV and a smart speaker.
Image: Person sitting at a desk with a tablet and smart phone. Behind the desk is a TV and a smart speaker.

This article is written in response to popular smart home platform Wink’s recent announcement that they will begin charging a monthly $4.99 fee for their services starting July 27th.

First, a (slightly technical) History of the Universal Hub (e.g., Wink)

Smart home devices that are easy for the average person to install and manage started to become popular in 2014. This was driven by startup companies collaborating with mainstream companies to release affordable, easy to set up equipment and devices for the home. Starting with thermostats, cameras, smart doorbells and lights, the movement has since expanded to include many other home appliances.


Because of the popularity of smart phones and tablets, nearly everyone who purchased smart home products already had a centralized control system they conveniently carried with them. People liked the idea that with their phone they could control their home, answer the door, or change the temperature in their house from anywhere in the world.

The Dilemma: How to Connect a Network of Smart Home Devices

For a person to control a smart home device from anywhere, the device needs three things to work:

  1. The device must have electronic chips in it to communicate and physically control its function;
  2. The chips need a way to reach the Internet; and
  3. There must be a service operating on the Internet to receive and send information and commands to and from the chips in the device. Typically called cloud services.

Back in the early 2000’s, manufacturers struggled to find the best way for smart home devices to communicate between one another. We are all familiar with two communication standards used for things like our laptops, tablets and phones to connect to each other. Their brand names are WiFi and Bluetooth (FYI: WiFi is short for “Wireless Fidelity” which people agreed sounded silly, so it was shortened to WiFi). WiFi and Bluetooth use radio signals that send information around.

The electronic chips that use WiFi can send signals very far, but the chips back in the early 2000’s were comparatively large, used a lot of power, gave off a lot of heat, and they were costly. Also, we have all experienced how WiFi signals can drop. Almost every home has a spot where the WiFi stops working.

Bluetooth electronic chips are very small. So small that they can fit in earphones. They use very little power, don’t give off heat, and are very cheap. However, the range of Bluetooth is very short, only about 30 feet and the signal can’t travel through objects like walls and people’s bodies.

ZigBee and Z-Wave Offer a Solution

Two new electronic communication standards, ZigBee and Z-Wave, were adopted in the early 2000’s to solve the problems manufacturers were having. The electronic chips that communicate using ZigBee and Z-Wave are extremely small, energy efficient, and are cheaper to manufacture.

ZigBee and Z-Wave solved another big problem — signals being dropped or lost. Every device that uses one of these radio transmission protocols both receives and broadcasts, allowing each device to act as a relay. If we could see ZigBee and Z-Wave connections, they would look like a web, where everything is connected to each other. This is called a mesh and mesh systems have far better performance because of their dependable redundant connections. In fact, the more devices that are added, the faster and better the connections become unlike WiFi which slows when too many devices are added.

There was still one issue remaining: how the smart home devices reach the Internet. Something local was needed to receive the ZigBee and Z-Wave signals, convert the signals, and connect the devices to WiFi in a home in order to connect to the Internet. Devices that performed this function were called smart home hubs (hubs for short).

The problem was that each manufacturer created their own hub for the devices they made. For example, smart bulbs used a proprietary hub created by the manufacturer that made the bulb, while smart bulbs from another manufacturer used a different one. Smart locks had their own hubs, as did the smart light switches and plugs. Also, each hub used a different app that was installed on phones and tablets. It was normal for some people to have 5-10 apps to control their smart home. If someone wanted to set up a smart home, they encountered chaos and a lot of costs.

A New Player in the Game: Wink

Things changed in 2014 when small startup companies began manufacturing hubs that could communicate with multiple brands of home automation devices. These centralized hubs could talk to a wide range of home automation devices from multiple different manufacturers. This highly simplified the install process when using devices created by multiple companies. Also, for the user, you could use one app to wirelessly control your devices. If your WiFi changed, and if your hub was plugged into your WiFi router, you didn’t have to worry about setting everything up again. And, if you changed the router then you just plugged the hub into the new router, and you were done.


In a two-year period starting around 2013 through 2015 many companies released centralized home automation hubs and almost immediately went out of business because of the tremendous challenge of supporting the vast number of new smart home products that were being released. Companies that got a foothold included SmartThings, Insteon, Staples, Lowe’s and professional firms like ADT and AT&T. One company, Wink, took a different approach.


Wink simplified life for those who were not very technical. When putting new devices on the hub, the Wink app included videos of how to install the products for a vast range of manufacturers. Their support call center was also readily available to assist. From my personal experience, hold times were rarely over 5 minutes. Further sweetening the deal, unlike other manufacturers, Wink did not charge additional costs after the initial purchase of the hub which cost less than $100.

Wink starter kit with HUB, devices, and home automation app
Image: Wink starter kit with HUB, devices, and home automation app

For six years, people could use the Wink hub and its app for free and enjoyed:

Centralized installation
• Centralized management of devices from various manufacturers

• Continual updates for new features
The ability to create smart routines (called robots): One could click one button to dim multiple lights and bring the thermostat to a comfortable temperature to settle down and watch a movie
• Easy dependable security
• Excellent customer support
• Voice control of products on the hub using Amazon Alexa or Google Home

Wink Moves to Subscription-Based Services

Wink users received a shock in May of 2020 when Wink announced they were moving to a subscription service and users had to pay-up in one week or lose access to the hub and app they had used for years. The following is part of their statement:


“Since 2014, Wink has grown to support more than 4 million connected devices. During this time, Wink has relied solely on the one-time fee derived from hardware sales to cover ongoing cloud costs, development, and customer support. Providing users with local and remote access to their devices will always come at a cost for Wink, and over the years we have made great progress toward reducing these costs so that we can maintain that feature. Wink has taken many steps in an effort to keep your Hub’s blue light on, however, long term costs and recent economic events have caused additional strain on our business. Unlike companies that sell user data to offset costs associated with offering free services, we do not. Data privacy is one of Wink’s core values, and we believe that user data should never be sold for marketing or any purpose.”

This move infuriated users, forcing them to drop the product (and thus abandon or rebuild their smart home setup) or pay up. With the change announced during COVID restrictions, the short notice and lack of warning, users were justified in their frustration. The common question was, why should I have to pay for something that was free for so long?

In Favor of Fees

Because of popular free sites and services such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and others, we have grown to believe we have the right to these services and that they should be “free”. However, if Wink is still committed to privacy, their original model was not sustainable and it was only a matter of time before they would need to make a change.

Companies have costs: staff, buildings and equipment, commerce and a host of other services for which they incur expenses. Also, they must return a profit. For a product to be reliable and worth investing in, the company’s operation must also be reliable and worth investing in. Over the past six years, a long list of companies have released great products, but due to poor management they went out of business. They left their customers with unusable devices and dead apps. These users received no reimbursement. I, myself, lost at least $2,000 worth of devices when Lowe’s shut down their Iris hub. The product lasted for less than 5 years. There are three ways companies cover their costs.


1) Target Marketing. If we look at Amazon and the Alexa Echo, there is the initial purchase that can be as low as $30. Each month there are new features added which have included free video and audio calling, home automation control, music, and other services. Alexa now performs almost all the functions of a central smart home hub.


How does Amazon cover the cost of this? The speakers give them insight into your home and how you use and consume things. In short, our use of the device tells them what to advertise and sell us. Also, many people, including myself, use the Alexa Echo to make purchases directly from Amazon. My family uses a good quantity of AA batteries and when we run low we say to the Echo, “Alexa, order more AA batteries.” It responds, “Based on your last purchase, is this what you want?” A picture of the last order appears, and we respond with, “Yes.” We like the convenience and have safely used our Echo for years.


2) Selling Your Personal Data. The second way companies make money, and the most insidious in my opinion, is they sell everything about you to other vendors and advertisers. They take the Amazon model one step further. For example, Google purchased and recently took complete control of the Nest company, which manufactures some of the most popular smart home products.

In 2019, Google created a new requirement: in order to use the products and all the features you must use a Google account and email. In fine print they state they will be linking your email, calendar, and document information to a pool of information about you. They also link your account to your Google Home account and smart speaker. This means they can sell information about how you use your lights, security, email, events, how you react to weather, etc. to anyone willing to get that information about you. In short, you are paying Google with information about everything you do.


Companies like Google and Facebook are so pervasive in our lives, we never stop to ask how we are getting all their services for free. As we click through the online agreements, we do so not realizing we are selling our privacy and giving them personal information to use any way they choose.


3) Subscription Services. The third and final way companies make money relates to subscription service. This method is typically used by smaller companies than say Google or Amazon. Wink is one of these companies. For Wink to continue to support their products and the users of their products, they must either: 1) receive a payment from companies like Google who pay smaller companies for specialized information about you; or 2) keep your information private but charge you a fee to provide their service.

At the end of the day, nothing is free and we will either pay with our money or pay with our privacy by sharing personal information about how we live.

What will you choose?

Smart Homes Made Simple presentation at Disability PRIDE Virtual PA 2020

Today Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) presented on Smart Homes Made Simple as part of Disability PRIDE Virtual PA 2020. Susan Tachau, PATF Chief Executive Officer, and Kirby Smith, Founder and President of SunKirb Ideas, talked about the ways people with disabilities can benefit from the use of smart home technology, smart home devices that offer control and increased independence, things to consider when selecting and installing your smart home technology, and how to fund the assistive technology you want and need.

Download the “Smart Homes Made Simple” presentation slides (PDF)

Coming soon! Check back for the recording of the presentation which will be posted here in the coming days.

Click to access Smart-Homes-Made-Simple-DisabilityPRIDE-7.1.20-Final.pdf

New Video on Generic Smart Home Technology

Pennsylvania Assistive Technology Foundation (PATF) is pleased to announce it has produced a new video funded by a grant from the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council.

Full transcript available at https://patf.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/MeetSuriaVideoTranscript.docx

Suria Nordin is a member of PATF’s Generic Smart Home Technology project Advisory Committee. As part of the Generic Smart Home Technology project funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, PATF visited Suria and her smart home with film students from the Academies at Roxborough to create this short video showcasing how Suria is using her technology to increase her independence at home and at work.

In 2017, PATF launched the Smart Homes Made Simple campaign to help people with disabilities who want to live more independently and with greater autonomy using new types of smart home technology. You can learn more about smart home technology at Smart Homes Made Simple and then connect with PATF for information and assistance with funding the smart home devices you need and want.

This project is supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council; in part by grant number (1901PASCDD-02) from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects with government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official ACL policy.

Treating Your Passwords Like the Keys to Your Home

By: Kirby Smith, Founder of SunKirb Ideas, LLC

Why are so many of us too busy to protect our passwords?

My entire career has been involved with computer technology and digital devices. My past profession was as senior vice president of information technology for a mid-sized national company and now I own a business where I automate houses and set up smart homes. Both jobs have required me to set up and manage devices and network security for individuals and organizations. One area that has always stunned me is how lightly people treat the importance and protection of their passwords. Disproportionately, people live in ever-increasing fear of “hackers.” Just the mention of the word can cause people to rise up in outrage against companies blamed for not stopping the hackers. Before looking at why better password management should be higher on your list of online security priorities, let’s look at the reality of hackers and passwords.

What exactly is a Hacker?

Ironically, the word started off as something of a compliment. In the early days of computers, during the late 60s and 70s, computer technology started to move out of the military and corporations and into the hands of youthful people. These young pioneers could for the first time afford the technology to do something different. Many of these people would go on to form companies based on their creativity and perseverance. Some of these became familiar: Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Intel, IBM, HP, Samsung (reborn 1960), Oracle, and Dell. When programmers would look at the accomplishments of others, knowing how much work it took to create something new or simplify something complicated, they equated it to cutting through a thick piece of wood or clearing a way through jungle growth. “They hacked away until they got through it!” If you developed a reputation for solving tech problems, you became known as a hacker.

Thieves followed the money

As the 80s rolled in, and more people started to use computers in the office, certain people found ways to exploit the system for personal gain or notoriety. The early 90s introduced the public to the Internet. Once the 2000s arrived, and people started to own more personal electronics, attention shifted to consumers instead of corporations to drive the economy. With the rise of Internet commerce, thieves adopted the tools and attitude of early developers. They used the same creativity and skills from the past to build theft technology and hacked away until they found cracks. For the first time, people started to think about internet security, and the word “hacker” entered the lexicon.

Years later, what is our primary means of identity security on the internet? Usernames and passwords, the same system we had in the 60s. For organizations and companies, it is the easiest and cheapest solution… if it is used effectively. Better systems involve biometrics. Biometrics use sensors or cameras to measure people’s unique physical characteristics, analyze them, and create a unique key based on the data. For example, one can log in to a Windows 10 computer using their face, iPhones use fingerprints and face measurements, and some banks use speech patterns to identify you when you call in by having you speak random phrases. However, these systems are costly and to be cost effective they would require all companies to standardize on one method. For the time being, passwords will continue to be the primary identification system.

Imagine your online identity is like your house

If you are trying to secure your house, you wouldn’t only look at the lock and key on the door. You would look at every way one could enter the house. Are the windows left open? Is the door securely on its hinges? Perhaps most importantly, you would consider who is being invited in. Do you invite just anyone to come into your home? Is there ever a circumstance where you would simply hand your key to a stranger?

Easy to guess passwords: The equivalent of hiding your key under the doormat
Online thieves take the path of least resistance when they “break in.” They are not going to invest hours of time hacking into individual accounts (unless they personally know you). If one is going to hack in, they are more likely to go after large organizations holding the information of 100,000s or more users (such as the recent Wawa, Capital One and DoorDash breaches). This allows them to sell that information, make a quick profit, and reduce their risk of being caught since they haven’t directly stolen goods. Online thieves do know people’s habits. A large number of people have the following passwords, which don’t take a lot of hacking:

Top 10 Worst Passwords 2019 – (Read the full list)

  1. 123456
  2. 123456789
  3. qwerty
  4. password
  5. 1234567
  6. 12345678
  7. 12345
  8. iloveyou
  9. 111111
  10. 123123

These passwords are ranked as the worst because they are the most commonly used – making them easy to guess! Other common password mistakes include using your close family member’s name, your birthday, or names of things like your boat, team, or other information readily available on Facebook and other social media apps.


A simple trick for hackers is to go to a popular site like Facebook, scan for people who post pictures that practically advertise they have good income, pull their email from their site, and then run a program using that email to log into Facebook. The program will try common passwords, and if there is a hit, the program (often called a “bot”) will add the valid email/password combination to a list. This technique is called “Brute Force” hacking, and it is one of the least efficient methods for a hacker to use, but it works. For a hacker that knows who you are personally or is aware of your history, you are more likely to come under this attack.

Phishing

Another method for online thieves that doesn’t take much effort on their part is to drop some bait and let people come to them. This is called Phishing (a twist on “fishing”). One of the most prevalent methods of phishing is to blast out emails that look like they are from a person, an online store or financial institution you know or have done business with. See the example below.

Phishing_scam_example_email

This is a classic example. At first glance, the email looks like it is from service@intl.paypal.com. Between the email address, logo, and similar font and format of legitimate emails from PayPal, one may feel a sense of urgency to act quickly by clicking on the links. However, take a closer look at the email address. When you receive an email, it is displayed in two parts: the actual email address and a display name. Most people are familiar with the actual email address layout, such as JPSmith@gmail.com. However, to make it easier to be recognized, the sender can supply a display name. So, the “From:” line in your email will often show “Johnny Smith < JPSmith@gmail.com >”. Online thieves know most people do not fully read the “From” line, so in our email example in the image it is actually showing “service@intl.paypal.com < service.epaiypal@outlook.com >”. Few people notice that the display name and actual email address don’t match – the actual email address uses the name “epaiypal” and is an Outlook email address (outlook.com is a free email service provider), not a PayPal email address (paypal.com).


If you click on the link, you will end up at a fake website which might have the address “HTTPS://epaiypal.us/user-login”. The site will look exactly like PayPal, except for the web address. It will likely ask for your login and you might type it in thinking the information is being sent to PayPal. After the login, it may have a pop-up that says, “Thank you for securing your account,” and you will go away thinking you stopped someone from hacking your account, when in fact you actually provided the thief with everything they needed to open your account and seize control.


Another insidious Phishing method used by online thieves involves social media, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. Often, this method is specifically designed for mobile users. For example, you might get a Facebook message from someone you know saying something like, “OMG…you’ve got to check out this hilarious video of a baby tasting ice cream for the first time!” Attached to the message is what appears to be a link to a YouTube video. You click on it and you may see a pop-up that appears to be from your phone (iOS or Android) which say, “Please confirm your intent to use Facebook to log in.” A box appears with an Apple logo and asks, “please provide your Apple login.” Not thinking about it, you provide your Apple login. A pop-up appears that says, “Error in display, please log back into Facebook”. You log back into Facebook and you are back to where you started. You give up and forget about it. Here is what happened:


Despite this appearing legitimate, almost everything is fake. You provided the thief with your Apple or Android login as well as your Facebook login. You also may have executed what is called a Trojan App that will log in to your Facebook, scan your contacts and friends, and send them the same message you received. Your friends will get a message from you and will likely fall for the same stunt.


While there are other online theft methods, Phishing is becoming the most prevalent because online thieves can get your passwords, use your credit cards, and spread malware to you at the same time.


Let’s go back to thinking about the security of your house. Imagine you are careful to lock the doors and windows. However, a stranger knocks on the door and when you answer, they tell you they are checking the neighborhood safety and want to borrow your key to inspect it. They wear a tag that says, “Neighborhood Security.” Because of the tag you feel safer and you hand them the key. They turn their back and do something then turn and give the key back to you. Neighborhood Security says thank you and leaves. It is highly unlikely you would do this in real life. However, people do this online every day.


With all the methods online thieves are using, and the fear they generate, we can go back to the original question, why aren’t more of us taking more care in choosing and guarding our login credentials? Sometimes it’s a lack of information, sometimes it’s about convenience, and other times it has to do with misplaced trust. Even internet-savvy people can make mistakes and overlook things. And with so many accounts to manage these days, the challenge is magnified because each one needs a unique password and security settings. Unfortunately, according to a recent study, 83% of users surveyed use the same passwords for multiple sites.

So, if the odds are that some of your credentials have been stolen (remember, many thieves sell the data before using it directly), and are floating around on the dark web, then why do we persist in using the same combination for almost all our personal, confidential, and financial accounts? The Wall Street Journal published an article with research about this:


…[I]n my research with Robert Otondo and Merrill Warkentin of Mississippi State University, we discovered there’s something else happening here: People have an emotional attachment to how they create their passwords. To most people, passwords aren’t just random. They’re personal.


The article goes on to point out two insights:

First is the “endowment effect.” It turns out that when we own things, we get attached to them. This, in turn, leads us to overvalue the owned item. My coffee cup is worth more than your coffee cup, simply because it’s mine. We become unwilling to swap it for another item with the same functionality, even if the replacement is superior to an unbiased observer. The second factor is what economist Dan Ariely calls “the IKEA effect”: We become inordinately attached to the things we create and, again, we overvalue them.

There are tons of websites and publications that recommend how to create passwords. However, we all resist the advice to some degree. Beyond crafting a better password (and making sure each account’s password is unique), there are two other simple things you can do to at least improve your online security:

  1. It can’t be emphasized enough to use what is called two-factor authentication (2FA). It is based on three generally recognized factors for authentication: something you know (such as a password or detail from your past, something you have (such as a cell phone for text/email, a computer you are already logged into, or a device/app called a token that creates random numbers and is synched to a service)), and something you are (such as your fingerprint). Two-factor means the system is using two of these options. For tokens, you may get it through text or Google or Microsoft Authenticator (free on Android and iOS). Twilio Authy, Duo Mobile, SAASPASS, and LastPass Authenticator, among others, all do the same thing on mobile and some desktop platforms, and most popular password managers all have 2FA by default. Watch this video to learn more about two-factor authentication.
  2. Use password storage apps, or at the very least a written list (kept in a safe private place), to note and manage your logins. I personally use the app called Keeper. Other top managers are 1Password, Dashlane, LastPass, and RoboForm. Most of the top ones run on all platforms (phones, tablets, and computers) and synch all your information between them. They have multi-levels of protections and can even create and manage passwords for you. They also integrate with biometric login systems including Microsoft, Apple iPhones/iPads and Droid. Read the list of the best password managers of 2020 with descriptions and ratings.


Phishing has become an industry where hackers now sell their services and tools. There is just too much money, vulnerable people online, and low risk for thieves to ignore the opportunities available to them. It might feel like experts are nagging you, but the danger is very real. Your best defense is to protect your passwords the way you would protect your physical keys. Below are links to other articles explaining how to protect yourself.

List of state by state cyber crime

How to recognize and avoid phishing scams

Passwords dos and don’ts

How hackers use emails to fool you with detailed examples and pictures

 

Smart Home Tech Spotlight – Meet Suria!

Suria Nordin is a member of PATF’s Generic Smart Home Technology project Advisory Committee. When Suria was injured a few years ago, her husband Kirby Smith began researching ways to adapt generic smart technology to give Suria more independence in their home. They were so successful that they launched SunKirb Ideas, a company that focuses on identifying, adapting, and installing affordable products that make people’s homes “smarter” and provide them greater independence. As part of the Generic Smart Home Technology project funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, we visited Suria and her smart home with film students from the Academies at Roxborough to create this short video showcasing how Suria is using her technology to increase her independence at home and at work.

Full transcript available at https://patf.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/MeetSuriaVideoTranscript.docx

Amazon Alexa and Privacy

By: Kirby Smith

Is Alexa Recording Everything I say?

As Alexa has grown in popularity, one of the major concerns potential consumers express is around privacy. “Is Alexa recording everything I say and sending it to Amazon?” Where answers cannot be provided with 100% certainty, this article will attempt to examine what the true risks and best practices are that one should follow with Amazon Echos in the home. (Note: this article will focus primarily on Alexa Services. Google Home and other smart speakers operate differently.)

I have owned Amazon Echos since November of 2014. Since I own a business that configures and installs smart homes, I pay very close attention to the devices and the apps. I have also worked with hospitals that were interested in using Alexa for their patients, which carries HIPAA implications and has forced me to consider privacy across a broad band. For those who have deep worries and anxiety about the government or big business listening, I don’t believe there is any reassurance that can be given to take that away. My best advice to someone with level of concern is not to use the device (and for that matter, get rid of your smart phones and computers, too – more on this later). However, for those who want to understand the level of risk and learn how to mitigate what you can, I will attempt to explain how everything works.

First, let’s start with some background on Amazon Echo. There is the physical hardware, called Echo, and the service behind it, typically called Alexa.

The Echo Hardware

Echo is essentially a fancy Bluetooth speaker. It can fall into two categories, speaker only models and speakers with interactive touch screens. If you were to break down a basic unit that does not have a screen, you would find:

  1. Buttons: (Ø) = Mute/Stop Echo from listening, (-) = Volume down, (+) = Volume up
  2. A colored light ring (or line on the bottom of the models with screens), which indicates the activity taking place. Most important: when the device is listening, the Ring turns blue and pulses.
  3. An array of microphones that can pick up your voice from across the room, even distinguishing your voice from background noise in the environment. It has been suggested that the Echo name comes from the fact that it is listening to sounds spatially (think echoes) and isolating voice sounds.
  4. Multiple speakers (the higher the quality of the Echo, the more speakers it will have to convey added bass and treble).
  5. Small circuit boards that include chips that make the buttons work, control sounds and video (if there is a screen), and process input sounds from the mics.amazon-alexa-pic1

The Alexa Service

Like a computer, Alexa has memory used to store what it hears. However, this memory is only large enough to hold the equivalent of a long sentence. Locally it hears sounds but does not “activate” until it hears its wake word (which can be “Alexa”, “Echo”, “Computer” or “Amazon”). I will use the standard “Alexa” for simplicity. Until the word Alexa is heard, the memory continuously over-writes itself. Once the wake word is heard, the memory begins to store the sentence following the wakeup. From here, the sentence is encoded and sent to servers and software in the Cloud, which are collectively called Alexa Voice Services. Alexa Services is where the sentence is processed for understanding and acted upon if legitimate. The following image is from Amazon’s site:

amazon-alexa-pic2.png

Where it says, “Audio was not intended for Alexa,” I listened to the actual recording and most of the time it was something unintelligible from a television, non-sensical random words, or other extraneous background sound. In short, I didn’t hear anything that sounded like something truly important. Most of the time it recorded things like “Turn on the living room lights” or “What’s on the shopping list”. I personally did not find anything that alarmed me, and I also learned that it is very easy to delete them. In fact, by turning on the switch under Menu/Privacy/Review Voice Recording: Enable deletion by Voice, you can tell Alexa things like, “Alexa, delete everything I said today,” if you want to easily remove recordings. 

Alexa in the News

I do not intend to make light of the concern that Amazon may be collecting private information from us through Alexa. Let’s examine and address some of the headlines about Alexa and its lack of privacy and compare it to other real-world situations.

A family that had Alexa accidentally sends a recording of a conversation to a random contact:

“A Portland family tells KIRO news that their Echo recorded and then sent a private conversation to someone on its list of contacts without telling them.”

Amazon’s response:

“Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa.’ Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request. At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.

Amazon’s response was that this was a very rare occurrence where things just happened to occur in the right sequence to send the snippet of conversation. There were numerous news reports and television/radio discussions about it. This was reported in May of 2018. Following this, with all the attention, there have been very few articles reporting similar occurrences.

However, consider for a moment your smart phone – something similar happens so often there is a name for it. It is called a “butt dial”. Your phone is in your pocket, purse, or even on the table and you accidentally dial someone. I have been treated to things I didn’t want to hear more times than I can count. While there is great alarm about Alexa violating our privacy, we do not seem to apply the same alarm to our phones. It begs the question, with Siri and Google assistant listening to us – not only at home, but everywhere we go – the larger threat may be our phones.

Amazon Staff Are Listening to Alexa Conversations

“Over 100 million Amazon Echos have been sold as of the start of 2019: That’s no small number. But some people might be looking to throw away their device after it emerged that Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to listen to voice recordings captured in Echo users’ homes and offices.

According to Bloomberg, the recordings are transcribed and annotated before being fed back into the software. The aim is to eliminate gaps in the voice assistant’s understanding of human speech so it can better respond to commands.”

Once again, there was media outrage. However, let’s step back and examine what is happening. First, note that by the time they are being reviewed by a human, the recordings are anonymous. If you created this product, how would you improve its understanding? You would have to examine its performance by checking what was said by your clients against the device’s understanding. To prevent overstepping privacy, you would strip away identifying information and then have people “quality check” it. I used to work in a call center. To improve customer service (as you are notified when you call) the calls are recorded and reviewed by supervisors and managers.

Amazon’s explanation was:

 “‘Amazon uses this information to train its speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand requests and ensure the service works well for everyone,’ the spokesperson says. ‘We have strict technical and operational safeguards and have a zero-tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. While all information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment to protect it, customers can delete their voice recordings associated with their account at any time.’”

Looking at the spectrum of devices that listen, it was admitted by Apple and Google that they do the same thing with phones, computers, watches, DVRs, and oddly, smart TVs. I have heard people say, “If you value your privacy, get rid of Echos in your home.” With so many people living in an eco-system of smart devices, simply eliminating Amazon Echo seems short-sighted.

What Can You Do?

So, what should you do, short of not using any smart devices? If you, like myself and many others, decide the pros of these devices outweigh the cons, but you are worried about your privacy, go to your settings on the device. Find the privacy settings and disable everything that might be collecting data. Quoting Forbes, April 12, 2019 article, Amazon Staff Are Listening To Alexa Conversations — Here’s What To Do:

On the Echo, you have the option to disable voice recordings for the development of new features. However, even if you do opt out, it’s possible that recordings will be analyzed by hand over the regular course of the review process.

The Alexa Privacy Settings page is available via www.amazon.com/alexaprivacy or through the Alexa Privacy tab in Settings in the Alexa App.

You can also switch the device off and only use it when needed, or ensure it only responds to one person’s voice. At the same time, it’s possible to listen to the voice recordings associated with your account and delete all previous voice recordings in your settings.

You can also configure certain Echo devices to play a short audible tone any time audio is sent to the cloud.

A Larger Issue – The Big Guys Collecting Your Data

As I stated earlier, the larger issue is the full eco-system of consumer data. Right now, it is my opinion that Google and Facebook have far more access to your information…wherever you are.

In response to concerns, many social media services have moved privacy up on their Menus within their apps. Let’s compare Alexa Privacy controls to others:

amazon alexa pic3.png

Amazon Alexa provides five straight-forward groups of information that you can control. These allow you to review your actual raw information (listen to what it recorded), look at and delete any history related to your smart home devices (such as when you turned off the bedroom lights), and manage each type of information stored (such as shopping lists, credit cards, you name, email, etc.).

If you wish to manage your Google information, the directions are on Google’s privacy page. This is where I personally became overwhelmed. As I scrolled (and scrolled… and scrolled…), I was shocked by how many different areas Google is collecting my data. It involved websites, ads, maps, phone locations (meaning my locations), sites I visited, stores I shopped at, purchases on sites (including Amazon), music I listened to, and more. The take-away is that even if you are not using a Google app, there is a large, almost universal eco-system of Google accessible information that is monitoring and storing almost everything you do. And this system is connected to Facebook. Although I had not posted pictures of a trip to California, a friend took a picture of me at a store there. Facebook’s facial recognition tagged me, Google gained the information, linked it to the store I was in, and I began receiving ads for the store. Also, I found no easy way to review all the information Google had stored about me. There was just too much.

The combination of Facebook and Google means by cross referencing data, the two can know almost everything I am doing whether I use an electronic device or not, or whether I am at home…or not. So, in the grand scheme of things, I find Alexa listening to be the smaller threat than the activity monitoring of the larger social media companies.

Europe has so far led the way in enacting laws to protect consumer privacy. As explained in The New York Times, June 8, 2019 digital edition, the article titled-  Why Is America So Far Behind Europe on Digital Privacy?

In the past year, Congress has been happy to drag tech C.E.O.s into hearings and question them about how they vacuum up and exploit personal information about their users. But so far those hearings haven’t amounted to much more than talk. Lawmakers have yet to do their job and rewrite the law to ensure that such abuses don’t continue.

Americans have been far too vulnerable for far too long when they venture online. Companies are free today to monitor Americans’ behavior and collect information about them from across the web and the real world to do everything from sell them cars to influence their votes to set their life insurance rates — all usually without users’ knowledge of the collection and manipulation taking place behind the scenes.

We must hold our government accountable for putting laws in place to protect us. The bottom line is, until changes are made, be an informed user. When you are using a device, check to see how transparent the company is when it comes to allowing you to control the data collected about you, and how they inform you about what you can do to protect your privacy. Then take whatever steps you need to find a level of protection and privacy that helps you sleep at night.

 

 

 

Automatic Door Openers

By Kirby Smith

The ability to come and go as you please from your own home is not one to take for granted. When you live with muscle weakness, a physical disability, or perhaps as you age, the seemingly simple task of opening and closing your front door may be difficult. Struggling with this everyday function can be a significant barrier to independence. Beyond the front door, interior doors can pose an equal challenge, making a trip to the bathroom or bedroom unnecessarily burdensome. However, new technology is making automatic door openers more available and often more affordable for those who would benefit.

How Automatic Door Openers Work

Let’s start by understanding how these openers work. Automatic door openers can be operated in a variety of ways, including through voice control, a motion sensor, the press of a switch stationed on a wall or stand, an app on a smart device, or a fob that opens the door at the press of a button or when the fob is near the door.

For an automatic door to be reliable, it should be operational even if the electrical power fails. One designed specifically for individuals with disabilities takes this into account and operates off an internal battery. The units are always plugged in to keep the unit charged, but they use the battery to operate.

Automatic door opener systems have five key parts:

The Door – The door is part of a frame and when a door is installed, especially a front door, they are installed together. Most homes use wooden doors, however, metal doors and frames are becoming more popular in homes built in recent years.

Examples of Smart Locks

The Lock and Knob – For those who are living with a disability, or have difficulty manipulating keys and knobs, the issue of the door lock is solved with the automated door. A door is locked when the bolt extends from the lock on the door into the opening on the frame. However, the automatic door gets around this by replacing the hole in the frame with an automatic latch. To further automate the door and control access, a smart lock can be added, which eliminates keys. Visitors are given a code to enter on a keypad that can be deleted if you no longer want to grant access (such as when a caregiver no longer works for the person). Remotely, one can unlock the door for someone using a smart device, and smart locks can be controlled from within the home using one’s voice.

The Door Operator Unit – This part is attached to the door and does the actual work. It will release and open a locked (or unlocked) door, pause to hold the door open for entrance or exit, close automatically, and then return the door to being locked. A good automatic door opener should give you the option to extend the time the door is open, and allow the door to be closed by pushing the remote control again. Also, I highly recommend units that leaves the door free-swinging for manual use.

The Automatic Strike (latch hole) – An important part that works with the door operator unit is the automatic strike. The way a door usually locks is by a bolt in the body of the door extending our and entering the latch hole in the door frame. This keeps the door from being opened. With an automated door, instead of the bolt being activated to unlock the door, an automatic latch hole, called a strike, opens on one side so that the lock bolt no longer catches on it, and the door can swing open without resistance. The automatic strike (latch hole) must be installed into the door frame. This involves cutting into the frame to add the mechanical parts and replace the standard the latch hole. The latch is then attached to the automatic door opener with a thin wire run through the frame.

The Remote Control – This is the electronic key. The remote control can be either handheld or easily mounted on a wheelchair. This high-powered remote device can activate the door system from anywhere in the home or a short distance outside of the front door, and many can be activated with fingers, palm, the side of the hand and more. Not all automatic door openers have a physical fob—some are activated by voice, motion, or from a smart device.

Most of us are familiar with industrial and commercial automatic door openers, such as the automatic doors at many supermarkets. These units are usually designed to handle a great deal of traffic and must be built to take a beating. However, these units are very expensive, large, and require special entry ways. Private and home door openers are specifically designed to work within a home and are adapted to function in smaller spaces. They can be installed in just about any door in a home, small business or office.

My Personal Automatic Door Opener Setup

My Open Sesame Automatic Door Opener

I have installed a lot of automatic doors, and I particularly prefer Open Sesame Door systems. Their automatic door openers are specifically made for people using wheelchairs and those with reduced mobility.

The unit is a little over a foot wide and only requires four screw points to be attached: two at the very top of the door and two where the swing arm is anchored. The unit is not noisy, and it comes in various colors to match the paint on a door, making it less noticeable. It is low voltage and requires little to no maintenance. My wife uses a wheelchair and for the past five years, our door opener has operated reliably every time. The only maintenance ever required was that once I had to tighten the screw on the swing arm. When the door is opened manually, the unit remains off and the door opens freely and swings normally. When engaged, the unit unlatches a locked door, then opens, pauses, and closes it – all automatically. Note: Open Sesame does not lock or unlock your door hardware. Meaning, your regular lock remains locked, and the automatic strike (latch hole) opens to allow the bolt on the lock to swing out. This way the automatic opener can open the door without the use of physical keys or turning a knob. A critical safety feature for Open Sesame Doors is that if the door is closing, and the person or object is still in the doorway and stops its progress, the door will swing back open, pause, and then try to close again. This is important if someone is coming through the door and experiences a problem halfway through, such as the wheelchair getting stuck.

Open Sesame Door Openers have solved many issues related to residential units. However, other automatic door openers have challenging issues that you may want to take into consideration when choosing your door opener, including:

  • Reliability – Many of these units have high failure rates. For example, many do not work well when pushed by a person not using the automated features. Some can be damaged if the person entering the door bumps the door while it is opening. If a person is using a wheelchair, this is going to be a likely occurrence. This can cause grinding in the motor and cause it not to work properly over time. Also, some units are under-powered and cannot properly handle the weight of a door,therefore leading to failure. Other units lack independent power, and in the event of a power outage they can cease working entirely.
  • Installation – Some units only work with specific door frames, resulting in a modification or total replacement of the door and frame in order to use that unit. Most openers require a power source (nearby outlet or power line installed specifically for the door), and some units require higher voltage requiring an electrician to run a special line for the unit to be able to draw enough power to open the door.
  • Noise – Many of these units can be very noisy when functioning. The sound is often described as a loud grinding sound.

Key Takeaways

To recap, here are a few questions to ask yourself when choosing your automatic door opener:

  • Does the unit work on battery or will it fail if the power goes out?
  • Do you have people coming in and out who will not use the opener? Consider one that will swing freely when opened manually and won’t fail over time if people push on it while it’s operating.
  • What is your preference for operating the door? Voice? Motion? The press of a switch mounted somewhere? The use of a fob with a button or that activates the door when in proximity?
  • Is it important to you to have the ability to control the door remotely through an app on your phone? Make sure the opener you’re looking at is compatible with the smart device you plan to use.
  • Is the door likely to get bumped as you’re moving through the doorway? Read reviews to see how the opener you’re interested in stands up to repeated bumps.

Smart Homes and the Power of Voice?

By Kirby Smith

Why are so many people excited about Smart Homes?

By now, you’ve probably seen commercials showing people walking into their homes and saying, “Turn on the lights” or “Play jazz music” and, like magic, the lights turn on and music fills the air. Companies that range from Amazon to Home Depot are advertising a slew of devices such as lights, thermostats, smart door bells and door locks that do the bidding of people just by being verbally commanded.  When several of these devices are connected, the term “Smart Home” is used.  However, very few people understand what it really means.  Like personal cell phones and large screen flat televisions in the past, smart home technology may seem to be a luxury.  But, with the drastic drop in price for these devices, it is slowly becoming popular. 

There is also a realization that these devices could be a boon for individuals with unique needs and challenges.  For a person who has limited mobility, or needs to manage a household with many children, or wants more peace of mind when away from home, these devices can become vitally important.

In Forbes July 5, 2017 Investing Article, we have this:

Recently, Best Buy announced that it is expanding space in 700 of its stores to better showcase Amazon’s Echo and Google Home devices and their interaction with smart home technology. Smart home technology is likely to be a key growth driver for Best Buy in the next few years.

According to Zion Market Research, the global smart home market is likely to grow at a CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) of 14.5% between 2017 and 2022 and reach $53.45 billion by 2022.

It almost seems like this industry has popped up overnight.  However, the industry sprung because of sophisticated consumer products that can dramatically change lives.  An excellent example of this is the evolution of the portable phone, now almost exclusively called smart phones.

10 years ago, we used our phones to…make calls.

Arguably this is one of the fastest electronic technology growth periods in history.  In less than a decade, our notion of normal regarding technology has changed. The idea that a phone just makes calls seems like an old notion nowadays.  Many parents feel worry if their children do not have a cell phone in case of an emergency.

In February 2015, Wired magazine reported:

WITH EACH PASSING season, another wave of mobile devices is released that’s more capable and more powerful than the generation preceding it. We’re at the point where anyone armed with a current model smartphone or tablet is able to handle almost all of their at-home—and even at-work—tasks without needing anything else. We’re living proof: for the last two years, WIRED has been able to cover events like CES almost exclusively using our smartphones(…) For those in many developing countries, a smartphone is their first computer and their only Internet-connected device. According to a February 2014 survey from Pew Research reports, Africans use their cellphones for mobile payments, for getting political, health, and consumer information and, of course, social networking. With pricing reaching an affordable $30 to $50 for some smartphones, people who have never before been able to afford a computing device now own one, and it fits in their pocket.

Our relationship with Tech changed.

Consumers first interface with a computer looked like this back in the early 1980’s:

Text input: We memorized commands and typed on one line.  If you didn’t know the commands, you couldn’t do anything. New words like reboot and operating system started to become common.  However, we only used the computers at work and saw learning them as intimidating drudgery.

Graphical interfaces: 1985 we moved on to pointing at symbols of functions and objects.  Suddenly, we could do multiple things at the same time and more intuitively understand how to use it. We could “see” what we are doing.  More people started using computers and some even started to buy them for home use.


Web Browsers: Starting in 1995, suddenly, we didn’t care what computer we used.  Prices became cheaper and the browser worked the same everywhere.  Who cared about how powerful the computer was if you have the Internet?  New words started to become common, such as…the Internet, dial-up, sites, internet addresses, and “surfing”.  We started to need computers to shop, watch things, do homework, etc.  By 2002, debates about facts end with, “Google it!”

Smart Phones: With the popularity of Blackberries in 2005 and the release of the iPhone in 2007, a phone became a tiny computer and was called “smart”.  We carried our computers in our pockets and forget they are computers.  We start walking into poles on streets as we can’t stop looking at our phones.  We begin controlling the real world with a tiny screen and “Apps”.  The only technical thing we think about is “coverage” and when is the next model coming out.

Voice: Voice is the latest and fastest growing trend.  Starting 2011, some of us tried Siri but ignored her when the smarter sister Alexa appeared in 2014.  If we had keys and groceries in our hands, we could tell Alexa or, later Google, to turn the lights on.  Kids don’t have to open a book when they can ask Alexa for answers.  Most important, those with special needs now have access to an assistant that takes requests like…an assistant.

The iPhone changed everything.

Prior to the smartphone revolution, technology giants focused on business and corporate solutions because they could sell big, expensive tech that would tie companies to them for years. Switching to another vendor was too difficult and expensive.  Sometimes the technology would seep into the household, such as personal computers (PCs) and laptops.  Because we used these products for business, we accepted paying thousands for the technology and companies like Microsoft and IBM grew huge.  Even smartphones were geared to business as Blackberry became famous and it was a status symbol to own one personally.  This all changed with the iPhone and the service behind it called iTunes.  Apple broke the rules.  They released a high-tech GPS enabled device that was in no way geared to business.  They advertised only to consumers and focused on the youth market.  IT departments considered them toys and some banned their companies from using them for corporate purposes.  Blackberry laughed at the iPhone for lacking a keyboard.  Meanwhile, consumers formed lines and suddenly the device was no longer just for geeks.  Apple always focused on how you could use it, not what was in it.  Tech became hip, a status symbol, and a way to buy something that did more than one function.  A person could use it the way they wanted.

Apple also shook up everything when they created the App Store and introduced “Apps”.  The operating system was no longer something you had to understand, learn, and buy every couple of years.  It was a shock to businesses to discover Apple (and similar companies) didn’t even charge for upgrades.  Instead of going to a store, you purchased and downloaded apps and music from an online store.  Consumers loved it, businesses were envious, and the giants from Microsoft to Dell to R.I.M. (Blackberry) watched their business models crumble.  As more people purchased iPhones, then iPads, and Android phones, people began to question why the tech at work was so clunky.  People were no longer willing to go to classes to learn how to use software. People “needed” to be connected and the internet became a tool for every person.  People no longer tracked telecom bills according to calls but by bytes.  Software became less bloated and complicated, turning into apps that solved a specific need.  Almost overnight, the concept of an app stores changed our perception of tech.  We all started to trust in devices that tied to online services handling our information, financial data, and entertainment.  New businesses exploded because they provided powerful computing services that didn’t need your devices computing power.  Computer experts had a term called “The Cloud” which came from drawings where IT guys drew a cloud to indicate a remote network function where “we don’t know how it works but it provides what we need and it’s safe”.  Consumers loved the simplicity of cloud services and we saw the rise of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Samsung and…Microsoft (reborn).

Government Technology reported on April 2016:

As Intel’s announcement of 12,000 layoffs by mid-2017 starts to sink in, many technology infrastructure analysts are pointing to the news as more evidence that the PC is dead — or on life-support. Global experts are now predicting that smartphones and tablets will increasingly replace desktop and laptop PCs.

Follow the Money.

By 2013, the mobile market had become saturated with competitors.  With competition so high, profit margins dropped for manufacturers.  Technology companies realized that with the focus on mobile, what were people using when stationary.  Other than being at work, people spend most of their time at home.  From the question, how can more technology be sold to consumers, a whole new industry was created, Home Automation, otherwise known as Smart Homes.

While businesses were slower to adopt, people opened their wallets.  The gears of industry followed the money, and now home consumer products are arguable driving the technology industry.  Like before, products are released to regular people, and commercial companies are slowly starting to adopt the technology:

  • From Reuters June 19, 2018 – “Amazon.com Inc. said on Tuesday that it has partnered with Marriott International, Inc. to help increase guest access to amenities with Alexa, through its voice-controlled device Echo, in an attempt to expand its presence in the hospitality industry.” [https://www.reuters.com/article/us-amazon-com-marriott-intnl/amazons-alexa-will-now-butler-at-marriott-hotels-idUSKBN1JF16P]
  • From Control4 (A business specializing in business automation) – “As a business owner or facility manager you have enough to worry about without letting the technology of business operations distract you. Control4 can give you competitive advantage by improving operating efficiencies. Set your lighting, music, temperature and video to greet your customers with the perfect welcome. With one button your security system arms, lights go on, temperature adjusts, and all the music and TVs automatically turn on. Keep an eye on things—from anywhere. Whether equipment or lights are left on, or unusual activity is detected, you’ll always be in the know.” [https://www.control4.com/solutions/smart-business]
  • From Brooks Brothers – “At Brooks Brothers, our employees are already successfully using Amazon Chime for productive online meetings. With Alexa for Business, we are now using Alexa to simplify our conference room experience. Alexa takes care of all the details by allowing us to begin meetings with the simple voice command, “Alexa, start the meeting”. Not only does Alexa for Business make it easy for me to provision and manage Echo devices throughout my office, but also configure them to work with Amazon Chime and my existing conference room AV/VC equipment.” – Phillip Miller, Head of Infrastructure and CISO, Brooks Brothers.

Of the popular consumer devices, the Smartphone/tablet has dominated but always had one problem… we still must pick them up.  The services behind smart speakers, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, are starting to provide the functionality that feels like a natural interaction.  For example, if I wanted to schedule a meeting with John Smith, I can say: “Alexa schedule a meeting with John Smith tomorrow at 3pm.” Alexa will not only enter the event into my calendar, she will send an email invite to John based on his information in my contact list.  On waking in in the morning one can say, “Alexa…I’m getting up.” Alexa will then turn on the bedroom lights, set the temperature to 73 degrees, make an announcement in the kid’s room to start getting ready, turn on the bedroom TV and tune to CNN, turn on the Alexa enabled coffee maker, and finally say “Okay, up and at them!” on the bedroom Echo.

This new A.I./Voice industry is really in its infancy.  Many issues are being worked out, including privacy and security concerns.  However, it promises to grow fast as so many people are enjoying the convenience of using them.  For those with manual/mobile dexterity disabilities or low vision, the devices are a godsend greatly increasing accessibility, independence, and functionality.  Of course, down the road there will be new capabilities and adjustments made to accommodate open work spaces, airplane seats, restaurants, or other public spaces.  We can only imagine where the industry will be in five years if all this has occurred in only three years!







Pitfalls of Caregivers, Technology and Smart Homes

For people who have a disability that severely limits their independence, caregivers serve a very vital role.  A caregiver can be a friend, a relative, or a paid attendant assigned by an agency who attends to the needs of a child or dependent adult.  Attendants may or may not be trained and, if paid, may be full or part time and may even live in the household or sleep over several nights during the week.

The Family Caregiver Alliance states:

“Approximately 43.5 million caregivers have provided unpaid care to an adult or child in the last 12 months. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP.]

Approximately 39.8 million caregivers provide care to adults (aged 18+) with a disability or illness or 16.6% of Americans. [Coughlin, J. (2010). Estimating the Impact of Caregiving and Employment on Well-Being: Outcomes & Insights in Health Management.]

About 15.7 million adult family caregivers care for someone who has Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. [Alzheimer’s Association. (2015). 2015 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.]

Along with performing household chores, providing transportation, doing the shopping, and performing personal care, many caregivers are also involved in administering injections and medications, as well as other medical treatments.  Providing this care can be stressful and especially, for friends and family, can contribute to depression and serious illness.

If the person receiving care has medical or other equipment, the caregiver’s role is expanded as they learn how to operate, maintain, and even repair the equipment.  With the advent of mobile devices, apps, mobile services (such as mobile banking), web services, and computer accounts, caregivers have been forced to adopt another role…that of tech support.

The Family Caregiver Alliance described the following:

70% of working caregivers suffer work-related difficulties due to their dual roles. Many caregivers feel they have no choice about taking on caregiving responsibilities (49%). This sense of obligation is even higher in caregivers that provide 21 or more hours of care per week (59%) and live-in caregivers (64%). 60% of caregivers in 2015 were employed at one point while also caregiving. [National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. (2015). Caregiving in the U.S.]

The lower the income and education a person has, the more likely he or she is a caregiver. Similarly, those with a high school education or less (20%) take on a caregiver role versus 15% of college graduates and 16% of postgraduates. [Gallup-Healthways. (2011). Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Survey: More Than One in Six American Workers Also Act as Caregivers.]

In short, caring for a person’s physical well being and health is already difficult enough before adding the challenge of providing technical support with no formal training.

These devices include things such as smart thermostats, cameras, door locks, and doorbells that allows a person to turn the lights off, see outside their house, answer the front door, unlock the door, or even control the television just by using their voice, smart pad, smart phone, or other devices adapted to their disability. Given that these devices are relatively inexpensive, widely available, and easy to use, they are being adopted at a fast pace. A person may not own a smart speaker, but they may recognize an Amazon Echo (with the Alexa voice assistant) or the Google home smart speakers.

Smart phones, tablets, and speakers can allow a person with a disability to perform tasks from their home by using just their voice or text to speech. However, depending on the capabilities of the person, the caregiver may now have to assist a person with their technology.  The caregiver tech support falls into 4 areas: Online Security, Device Networking, Installation and Troubleshooting.  This creates new challenges in the following ways:

  • Online Security:  For those whose disability prevents them from using their hands to write or type, they often must share their passwords to have the caregiver log them into their service or device.
    • Scenario: The caregiver sets up a new smart phone for the person they assist.  The person with the disability is intimidated by the technology, and the caregiver takes it upon themselves to create the new online account (choosing from one of the 4 email accounts belonging to the person with the disability). The caregiver creates the password and does not write it down.  The person with the disability care doesn’t ask for the password to be recorded.  To setup the apps, which may include online banking, email, Amazon account and Comcast, the caregiver was given the login for everything.  Seven months later, the caregiver has a falling out with the family.  The caregiver walks away with complete control and access to the banking, Comcast account, Amazon account (for purchasing) and even the phone account.  A few months later, the person with a disability purchases a new phone and gives their old phone to a friend, who wipes it.  The person tells the new caregiver to setup the new phone for them.  Not understanding how iPhone are linked to an iCloud account, they both discover that they had no access to email accounts, backups (to setup the new phone) or even the banking and credit card accounts.  When the bank and credit card companies are contacted, the care recipient does not know the answer to security challenge questions or logins.
  • Networking: To maintain the connection to the Internet, some people receiving care are dependent on their care givers to ensure that the router in their house is functioning properly. Tasks could include interfacing with the provider (such as Comcast), rebooting the router, checking the connectivity of devices attached to hubs, and ensuring that the devices have not been changed or tampered with in such a way that the smart devices no longer functions.
    • Scenario: The person with the disability receives an Echo (Alexa), four smart light bulbs and a hub to connect the lights.  With smart light bulbs, the power (switch) must always be left on and the bulb can only be turned off using the app or by issuing a voice command.  A nurse comes over during a regular visit, physically switches off the lamp (with the smart light bulb), and unplugs it when using medical equipment.  The night shift caregiver returns after the nurse’s visit.  While in bed, the person with the disability attempts to tell Alexa to turn on the lamp and discovers the light doesn’t work.  The night caregiver does not understand the technology, so she changes the bulb (throwing out the smart bulb), tries to turn on the lamp and finds out it still is not working.  She checks the plug, plugs the lamp in and the light comes on.  Everyone thinks the light is working.  When the person falls asleep the caregiver turns the light off using the switch on the lamp.  As part of her morning routine, the night caregiver takes out the trash and the morning shift caregiver arrives.  When the person with the disability tries to command the light to turn on, it doesn’t work.  They become distraught that the light is not working and, to assist, the caregiver begins changing setting in the app to the point that the other lights no longer work.  Eventually, the original installer must be contracted to fix the system and a new smart bulb must be purchased and setup.
  • Installation: The person receiving care may purchase or receive a new device with no professional or experienced installer to set it up.  They will depend on their caregiver to follow the instructions which can include: unpackaging the device, attaching the device on WiFi (or a hub), creating a cloud account and login for the device, activation of services, setting of specifications and training the person receiving the care how they can use the device. Finally, they must ensure the device is placed where it will perform optimally (for example the Amazon Echo must be placed where it can be seen and is in earshot to hear the commands).
    • Scenario: While the family has a paid caregiver during the morning and afternoon, various family members provide the care at night depending on availability.  As devices are added, each family member uses their own email and login account.  When there is a problem with the system, it is impossible for the paid caregiver to assist and the next day, many calls must be made to figure out the login accounts before the actual problem can be solved.
  • Troubleshooting: A device may fail, someone may unintentionally turn off a device, a device may lose connection to its hub, or the Internet connection may go down.  The caregiver may be called on to test the device and figure out how to reactivate it.  If customer support is contacted on the phone the caregiver may be the person making the call, rebooting the router, communicating what the notifications lights are showing or moving a device to a better position for reception.
    • Scenario: The person with the disability is very comfortable with technology and understands how everything work.  Unfortunately, the person’s wife had the router installed on the second floor. The caregiver is very uncomfortable with technology and English is not their first language.  When Wi-Fi goes down, the person receiving the care makes the call to Verizon.  The technician on the call askes that the router be rebooted and wants to know when certain lights blink.  The caregiver is sent upstairs, and frustration ensues as the caregiver does not understand what he is being asked to do as the care receiver is yelling at him from downstairs.

These scenarios are just some of the situations that can occur when caregivers are asked to provide technical support.  While some are very comfortable doing so, most are finding a job that can already be stressful to be even more complicated.  And while their responsibilities have grown, if they are paid, their pay has not increased.

While it is impossible to prepare for every situation, the following recommendations should be considered if technology is a part of or is going to be introduced into the general environment of a person living with a severe disability.

  • It takes a team: Many people with a disability have their own unique human resources and one cannot generalize the knowledge base of the person (attendant, family member, friend) who is providing assistance.  For example, a young adult who was injured and paralyzed may have his father or an attendant handling the primary care, while the mother focuses on accessing services and the finances (state programs and grants/medical bills/etc.). The older brother is better with technology and takes care of the phone and devices that his brother uses.  In order for a person with a serious disability to live independently, family members, friends, or paid attendant must be willing to take on varying roles to support that person.
    • Someone is managing the personal information – This may be the person with the disability, a family member, a friend or even a paid support person who is trusted.  This person should, if possible, form a plan of how to manage the personal information. Besides information such as a birth certificate, Social Security card, medical records, and other legal/financial information, technology related information should also be managed with equal importance.  Accounts, Login ID’s and other Internet cloud information should be kept in a secured journal (whether it is an online journal such as “Notes” on an iPhone or Windows computer or a spiral notebook). This journal should be backed up every so often, depending on resources.  Sometimes one cannot get around giving a caregiver their login information if the ability to enter it personally is not possible.  However, keeping control of this information will make it easier to protect, fix or adjust a data breach.  If the caregiver is trusted the information can be written on a paper and tacked to a wall so that another caregiver can quickly access the information.  Also, schedule regular dates to access apps and devices and the accounts being used.  Often people are excited about new services or devices and fly through creating the accounts.  Later, when asked what password is used, no one remembers, and the service can end up being locked, unusable and lost.
    • Someone handled the procurement – In the case of durable medical equipment, smart-home/home automation, a new cell phone or tablet, Internet service or other technology, someone handled the selection and purchase.  In the same journal/information sheet mentioned before, the name and contact info. of the primary purchaser along with the name and contact number of the services should be kept together.  Everyone providing care, including the person with the disability should know how to contact customer/technical support for all the technology.  If possible, a family member or friend should more actively take control of being the main technical support person who understands at least some of how everything works. That same person should be present when new technology is introduced.  Many young people, since they are growing up with these technologies, are a great resource to use.
    • When the caregiver is being paid – It is highly likely a paid caregiver will, at some point, move on.  Further, unless technical support was part of their job description, it is not fair or prudent to rely on them technically, to the point where the person receiving care has their lifestyle, online security, independence or tools imperiled by the loss of an employee. Smart home devices can have a dramatic impact on the life on someone who want to maintain independence.  This technology can be a vital part of a person’s life and must be guarded and wisely supported.