Deadbolts, Digitized: How Smart Locks Will Change Our Homes

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Photo: Courtesy of August

Last week, after half an hour of DIY stop-and-go, I installed the future on my front door.

The thing I attached — silver, matte-finished, about the size of an ashtray — was an August smart lock, the newest entrant into the maddeningly named “Internet of Things” space. The lock, I was told, would revolutionize the way I entered and exited my home, replacing the ancient practice of keyed door entry with something more refined and frictionless. No more hunting in my pocket for my keys like a goddamn caveman.

In many ways, the disruption of front-door locks is overdue. Hotels long ago switched from metal keys to plastic ones; all cars now come with keyless entry fobs. And yet, when it comes to securing our homes, we still carry around steel rings loaded with two-inch brass shards and hope we never lose them.

The August lock, which sells for $249 and is available both online and at the Apple Store starting today, is designed to fix the lost-key problem. The device comes in an iPhone-esque assortment of colors: silver, Champagne, dark gray, and red. (It was designed by Yves Béhar, the man behind the Jawbone Up and other iconic tech devices.) To install it, you unscrew the inside half of your existing lock, use one of three attachments to connect the August lock to your deadbolt, and use two clamps on the side of the lock to affix it in place. Only a single screwdriver is needed, and the four AA batteries inside the lock last for about a year. The company says that the lock can be installed by an amateur in less than ten minutes — mine took about 20. And once it’s installed, locking and unlocking your door is simply a matter of tapping an icon inside the August app and letting Bluetooth do the rest. The lock also has an auto-unlock feature that senses that you’re within a few feet of your door and unlocks it as you approach, and a feature called Everlock, which automatically locks your door after it’s been open for 30 seconds.

The best thing about the August lock is that it works with your existing keys — you’re only replacing the inside handle of the lock, not the lock itself. This makes it easier to switch and also gives you the option of keeping your keys around as a backup. In my week of testing the lock, I only had to reach for my keys once or twice. The rest of the time, I just let the door auto-unlock as I approached it, leaving both my phone and my keys in my pocket.

The worst thing about the smart-lock phenomenon (and it will be a phenomenon — most things that sell in the Apple Store are) is the specter it creates: an incursion of gadgetry, and an infusion of unknowns, into the most sacred of spaces. We invite new technology into our lives all the time, of course — new cars, phones, appliances. But it feels different, and much higher-stakes, when the gadget in question is a computerized lock. If a smartwatch malfunctions, you might get directions to the wrong restaurant. If a smart lock goes on the fritz, you could lose something much more valuable.

Most people I’ve told about the August lock ask two questions about its security. First, what if you lose your phone? And second, if hackers get access to your data, can they unlock your house remotely?

August has good answers to both questions. On the first, the company offers a remote-wipe option. So if you lose your phone, you can log onto a website, enter your user information, and de-authenticate that phone immediately, rendering it useless in opening your door. And as for hackers, August says it stores lock information and address information in separate encrypted databases. So even if a hacker could figure out the digital key to your lock, he wouldn’t have any idea where that lock was located. It would just show up as Lock No. 89798 (or whatever). And even in the exceedingly unlikely event that sophisticated hackers could gain access to both your August lock’s information and the information about where it was located, they’d have to be really, really motivated to steal things from you. At that point, it would be much easier simply to smash in a window.

I imagine that August’s $249 price tag will be most easily justified by Airbnb hosts and other people who have frequent houseguests. That’s because the lock makes giving out keys (and taking them back) as easy as sending a text. Just open the August app, invite the person you want to have access to your house, and specify whether you want the access to be permanent, recurring (if your housecleaner or dog-walker comes at 10 a.m. every Saturday, for example), or just one time.

One point Behar and August CEO Jason Johnson emphasized over and over during a chat earlier this month about the lock was that the security of old systems like door locks is often overstated. And this is true for me. I’m not a safe key user. I lose mine with some regularity. For a long time, I kept a spare in the most obvious place on my porch. And once, I even gave a set of keys to the barista at my neighborhood coffee shop, who in turn handed them off to a friend staying at my place. All of these practices are invitations to disaster. And unlike many other Internet of Things devices, a functional smart lock would solve more security problems than it creates. 

We are on the precipice of something big and worrisome, where all these connected-home gadgets are concerned. As companies like SmartThings (now owned by Samsung), Nest (now owned by Google), and Dropcam (ditto) make inroads into the home with connected thermostats, smoke detectors, cameras, and sensors of all sorts, the dividing line between public and private spaces is undergoing what might be a final erosion. There is no such thing as being alone in a home with connected gadgets. As The Atlantic noted, the connected home changes the concept of ownership altogether, complicating the relationship we have with our housewares and the remote, cloud-based systems they connect us to.

I’ve tried a lot of connected home gadgets in the last year or two, and the August lock is the only one I can easily imagine living with on a daily basis. It’s a simple, single-function device that, if you can part with the $249, will save you from a host of minor annoyances. But I worry about what else might ride into my house on its back. August says it plans to allow “trusted developer partners” to integrate their devices with its locks — so that, for example, opening your front door could trigger a sequence that would turn on your lights, fire up your A/C unit, and disable your home-security system.

After years of unfulfilled hype, the connected home age is finally upon us — and with it, a question we’ll all have to ask ourselves: Is the added utility of these gadgets worth compromising the dominion we feel, illusory or not, over our four walls? How does the balancing test we all conduct every day —  the appeal of new technology versus the privacy that technology asks us to give up — change when it affects the physical architecture of our lives, rather than the phones in our pockets?

Deadbolts, Digitized: What Smart Locks Mean