Lifehacker 101: Smart Locks

You may have heard the term "Smart Lock" applied to a new category of devices. But what is a smart lock, and why would you want one?

A Smart Lock Is Still Just A Lock

Broadly speaking a smart lock fits within the space generally referred to as the "Internet Of Things", given that it's taking an existing concept — in this case a lock, most typically a door lock — and adding network connectivity to it.

Why Would I Want An Internet Connected Lock?

There are some obvious benefits to an Internet connected lock, and some that are a little more subtle. A Net connected lock does away with the need to carry separate and sharp bits of metal with you wherever you go, which means that they're not scratching your smartphone in your pocket — or indeed, your delicate squishy body parts down there either!

It also expands the security possibilities of the lock itself, because a Net connected model can be operated from a remote location. As such, if you've got kids but you don't want them losing physical keys, they can be let in remotely from your smartphone when they get back home, or, for that matter, you can genuinely check whether or not you remembered to lock the front door on your way out in the morning.

How Does A Smart Lock Work?

There are typically two different connection technologies at play with Smart Locks; Bluetooth (for close range connections) and Wi-Fi, for connectivity anywhere you've got an Internet connection.

In Bluetooth mode, most smart locks act as though you've got the keys in your pocket, activating via app or web interface to seamlessly unlock when you approach a door, depending on the rules you've set. Bluetooth has limits on its range, however, so for longer range usage and monitoring, a Wi-Fi connection is the preferred model.

The range of available Smart Locks is ever expanding, but typically at the moment you're either looking at a full replacement of your existing lock, or a simple replacement of the deadbolt mechanism that allows you to retain existing key systems alongside smart functionality.

Can I Keep Using Keys If I Want To?

That depends largely on the model of lock you choose, but currently, most smart locks still have a default key entry option. For those that only replace the inner mechanisms, it may not be obvious that there's anything besides a key entry to consider.

What Are The Insurance Implications Of A Smart Lock?

Any additional security features are usually good news when it comes to insurance premiums, because anything you can show that improves your home security, and therefore lessens the likelihood of your insurance company making a payout is usually grounds for a premium reduction. It's non-trivial to hack smart locks (more on that shortly), but there can be issues if you're using only smart locks to secure your property, because they're typically built to stop people from getting inside, but not to stop you getting out in any way at all.

Some insurers insist on having deadlatch/bolt style arrangements so that if a burglar gains access to the property, it's not easy for them to abscond with significant quantities of your possessions. (i.e. — It's pretty hard to steal a HD TV through a broken window.) As with any insurance related matter, it's wise to take it up with your insurance company prior to installation, so that you know what they'll cover, and whether you'll get a premium discount, and they know what you're doing in relation to property security.

Are There Any Downsides To Smart Locks?

The current issues with Smart Locks can be divided into two categories. Firstly, there's the issue that this is still something of a nascent field, and as such, many users do find intermittent issues with apps that don't properly report the state of locks, or fail to pair with locks for easy unlocking and the like. Those are issues that should become less frequent as both software and hardware platforms mature over time.

The second issue is one that's rather endemic to the whole Internet Of Things field, and that's general security for a product with a very simple programming state. A lock is, after all, only either on or off, and as such, if there are flaws in app design, implementation or network security, it's not impossible to see a situation in which a "smart" lock could be remotely hacked to open, or ransomware-hacked to stay permanently locked. For a primer on the issues surrounding iOT and your home, our guide to Internet Home Security is a must-read.

The reality right now is that most home Smart Locks should be fairly safe thanks to the current security measures at the lock end, but as systems intertwine, the prospect of additional bugs creeping into wider home automation systems does raise its head.

Lifehacker 101 is a regular feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?

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Comments

    I am dying to install a smart lock on my house, the only real issue I have is with an item a lot of Australian homes have - A security door.

    There doesn't appear to be a smart lock (or some type of extender) that suits security screen doors. So, I could quite easily install one of the variations on my standard front door, I would still need to have a key for my security door.

    So if there are any lock manufacturers out there (ping Assa Abloy) then can you get onto that.

    Thanks!

      Depending on the screen door there are products available. Check out Sallis by Salto. Not cheap though.

      Ditto. Will implement as soon as this can be done.

      Personally, I'd ditch the screen in exchange for a more solid front door with a smart lock and a digital peephole instead of a security screen (both awesome and arguably more secure).

      I've often wondered why we have those in Australia. Frankly I think it's got more to do with the mozzies and the heat than it does with actual security, giving you the ability to lock the front of your house while still getting the breeze in summer. Personally I just open windows, and soon I'll be getting air con. So yeah I would totally swap for a sturdier front door.

    Look at replacing the strike plate rather than the lock. You can then keep all the existing keys and locks and just make the strike plate opening remotely accessible. Pretty much the same as most key card access systems work in offices.

    Plus, what happens when you get home after a big night and your phone's out of battery...

      Just keep a spare charged phone hidden under a nearby fake rock or under the doormat.

    An Australian review of some of the more popular smart locks out there would be great.

    I looked at a few, but they're designed to go over an existing lock (i.e. http://image.shutterstock.com/display_pic_with_logo/65513/65513,1150854382,8/stock-photo-dead-bolt-door-lock-in-closed-position-1460497.jpg) so I gave up.

    I'd also like something in a ZigBee option, as my home automation system is capable of doing ZigBee, but every ZB is so damn expensive.

    For me the greatest benefit is No Need of Metal keys so my Smart Phone is safe :)

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