Future Tense

Should This Thing Be Smart? Door Lock Edition.

Maybe your ability to enter your home shouldn’t depend on the cloud.

The Next x Yale smart door lock
The Next x Yale smart door lock. Photo illustration by Slate.

In Should This Thing Be Smart?, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, the $99 toothbrush, the $99 dog collar, the $1,199 mirror, the $199 bike lock, the $60 microwave, the $130 Christmas lights, and the $350 self-lacing sneakers.

On Sunday, an important slice of the internet was rendered inoperable when Google Cloud services went down without warning. For several hours, millions of affected users found themselves unable to access YouTube, Snapchat, their Gmail accounts, various Shopify storefronts, and, in some cases, even their homes. Google owns a company called Nest, which makes internet-connected thermostats, security cameras, and door locks, among other things. The company’s smart door lock, called Nest x Yale Lock, claims to provide unparalleled security and convenience for users—a premise that was rendered somewhat risible on Sunday. “Can’t use my Nest lock to let guests into my house. I’m pretty sure their infrastructure is hosted in Google Cloud,” wrote one poster on the website Hacker News.

Predictably, many online commentators reacted to this snafu by snarking over the very notion of a smart door lock that lacks a physical-key fail-safe to be used in case of emergency. But it’s worth noting that the lock itself worked fine during the cloud outage; what was really affected was the paired app. Nest x Yale Lock users could still access their homes by inputting their existing passcodes on the lock’s numerical keypad. The people who found themselves or their tenants locked out on Sunday had either not yet issued passcodes to their houseguests, forgotten their own passcodes, or simply didn’t pass those codes along to the people who were using their home.

It’s easy and fun to mock expensive tech gizmos when they fail in situations where the nonsmart devices they replaced would have continued to work. But it’s more interesting to interrogate these products during their most visible failures to try to figure out why they exist in the first place. Should a door lock be smart? Let’s find out!

Product: Nest x Yale Lock

Price: $219 on Nest.com; $249 bundled with Nest Connect, which you sort of need in order for this lock to work.

The case for the smart door lock: A collaboration between Nest and the long-lived lock company Yale, the smart lock aims to free the world’s door users from the tyranny of keys. Like the smart bike lock I covered last year, the Nest x Yale Lock is a product largely made for the sharing economy, in this case for people who “share” their dwellings with strangers, for money, via short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, and LetsMakeOurNeighborsHateUs.com, which I assume is the site that my upstairs neighbor uses to rent his unit out to an endless succession of smelly-garbage-generating weeknight partiers.

Standard-issue keys don’t always cut it for these residential entrepreneurs. For one thing, it can be inconvenient and frustrating to wait around at odd hours to hand off a physical key to a vacation tenant. Just leave the key under the mat or in a lockbox, you say? Sure, you could do that, but a short-term renter could end up losing the key anyway, or forgetting to give it back, or surreptitiously copying it with larcenous intent, or swallowing it as part of some odd Houdini tribute act to be performed loudly on a weeknight in the unit just above mine.

The smart door lock offers a solution to these very 21st-century problems. You, the homeowner, use the Nest app to generate a four- to eight-digit numerical code, which is then shared with the renter. The renter, standing at the door, opens it by punching in a code on the lock’s numerical keypad. Once verified, the deadbolt pops open and the party begins. This code-based system allows landlords to give their tenants access to their units for the duration of their rental and revoke it by changing the code as soon as that rental ends. Moreover, the app’s remote-access feature means that you can lock and unlock your internet-connected door from anywhere in the world. Paris! Modesto! The bottom of a well, assuming you can get service down there!

The smart door lock isn’t just for side-hustling sublessors who are slowly destroying the fabric of their neighborhoods. Perhaps you, a nervous sort, went on vacation and want to have your neighbor pop over to double-check that the stove is off. Perhaps you’re at work and need to let a cleaning person or a plumber into your house. Maybe you left your house in a late-for-the-train rush one morning and forget to lock your door. No worries! The smart door lock will help pick up the slack during those times when you have been very stupid.

The Nest x Yale Lock’s paired app is multifunctional. You can use it to program your door to automatically lock itself after a certain period of time. If, for whatever reason, you are a keypad-averse door user, then you can just tap a button on the app and the door will unlock—no keypad required! The app is also voice-compatible with your Google Assistant, which means that you can lock the door while simultaneously eating ribs, or some other messy foodstuff that requires both of your hands. Can you lock your door with a plain old key while simultaneously eating ribs? No, you cannot. (“Note: You can’t unlock the Nest × Yale Lock using voice commands,” the Nest website stipulates. As anyone who has ever seen the movie Sneakers will tell you, this is probably wise.)

The case against the smart door lock: Well, Sunday’s Google Cloud outage is itself a pretty good case against the lock, isn’t it? Yes, the outage didn’t last for long; yes, the locks were still accessible by means of preexisting passcodes. Even so, the incident illuminated the risks we all run when we replace dumb objects with smart ones and insert third parties into heretofore simple interactions.

The humble door lock is one of the least-obtrusive, most-effective objects on earth. You probably don’t give much thought to the lock on your front door, except for the cumulative 14 seconds per day when you are using it. That’s the sign of a useful, unobtrusive product: It’s there when you need to use it, it works when you need to use it, and it makes no further demands on your time. But when you buy and install the smart door lock, your lock is no longer just “your lock.” It’s your “Nest x Yale Lock,” and it’s part of your “Nest home,” which means that it will only fully work in tandem with other Nest products that you will have to install. Its efficacy becomes tethered to the cloud. You can’t even use a key as a fail-safe.

By turning your previously dumb lock into an interactive, branded experience, the Nest x Yale Lock creates a suite of new vulnerabilities that might end up complicating your door-opening experience. The lock’s batteries might fail, forcing you to find a 9-volt battery to “jump-start” the lock so that you can get into your house. Google Cloud might go down, thus complicating your efforts to grant access to moneyed strangers. You might forget to set a passcode or forget to memorize it. You might, I don’t know, leave the Nest app open on your phone, and then sit on your phone or something, thus locking your door when you didn’t mean to do so. Hackers might breach your lock somehow. Nest might change its terms of service in an annoying way. Your rowdy kid might spill some grape juice on your Nest Connect device, thus disrupting its connection with your lock. You might accidentally drop your phone down a well.

You get the idea. When the smart door lock fails you, the experience will seem infinitely more aggravating than it would have if you had been using a regular old lock—because you will know in your heart that the Nest x Yale Lock was a frivolous and unnecessary purchase. You thought you could improve upon the timeworn, mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dumb machines, and you will have been wrong. When you try to Icarus your deadbolt, you’ll have only yourself to blame if you end up getting burned.

Though the Nest x Yale Lock will help save your butt during those times when you forgot to lock your door, it won’t do a damn thing to help if you carelessly leave your door wide open. “The Nest × Yale Lock can only turn the deadbolt. It won’t close the door for you,” the website notes. Pfft! The smart lock is lazy.

The smart door lock cannot be used on glass doors or sliding doors, according to the Nest website, which is a real bummer for those of us who live that sweet, sweet patio lifestyle.

Security concerns: What happens to the data that is generated by your cloud-connected deadbolt? There are obvious security concerns around the prospect of generating a record of your entrances and exits from your home. If an app—the Nest x Yale Lock app or another one—knows when you are and are not at home, then it is theoretically possible for unscrupulous third parties to access that information, project when you won’t be home, and then literally break into your house. Just as concerning is the prospect of hackers taking your lock offline, or gaining access to your deadbolt by dishonest means. A smart lock can be socially engineered just as easily as a stupid one; a smart home is ultimately defenseless against its dumbest residents.

Is the smart door lock more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? It is more likely to be used to inspire the crime of physically assaulting your upstairs neighbor who won’t stop Airbnbing his apartment to loud, disrespectful jerks.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should not be smart. We observe an implicit social compact with many of the household objects we use on a daily basis. Your dresser, your mailbox, your step stool: These objects agree to just work every single time we use them, and we agree to not bother to disrupt them. Why disrupt a mailbox? What’s the point? You buy it, you install it, and then it lasts for the next 40 years, or until some rowdy teens smash it. This arrangement works pretty well for all concerned. The Nest x Yale Lock disrupts this social compact. Though it claims to simplify the interaction between lock and door user, in reality it serves to complicate that interaction by involving an assortment of third parties and by making the interaction a branded experience. Sometimes, low-tech solutions are the best solutions.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.