Posted in Blog

The Truth Behind My Love of Alexa: I’m All About That…Backend System

You may have seen in one of my last posts that I made reference to all of the actions we can have Alexa do in our new den. Our Amazon Echo and its Alexa has even been one of my Friday Favs.

When I make these types of posts, my husband likes to remind me that I’m oversimplifying how it works. Sure, to me, I just tell Alexa what to do and she does it. If I ask that she locks the doors, you hear the lock turn. When I ask for the den lights to turn on, all of the lamps in the room illuminate. I can even ask Alexa to vacuum. She’s the best listener in the house!

There’s actually a bit more to it. I figured the best way to explain it was to go right to the source and interview my husband. Here’s our exchange.

You say that I oversimplify how Alexa works. Why is that?

The Echo is just one component of a larger ecosystem I have configured in our house. It’s all centered around running an open-source home automation interface called Home Assistant, which runs on a Raspberry Pi.

Through that software, I have configured our smart-enabled devices. We have smart-enabled locks, some lights, and multiple light switches and outlets. I also integrated devices like our Amazon Echo, home alarm system and sensors, our HVAC (via Google Nest), and the garage door. I even tied in my 3D printer, but that’s just a glorified toy. With a more recent Home Assistant update, even your car is connected.

By having all of these devices connected through Home Assistant, you can tell Alexa to do a bunch of things in our house.

Sounds complicated. How did you figure this all out?

I mostly figured it out from friends and coworkers who run similar setups. I also researched different smart-home software that’s out there. I went with Home Assistant because I wanted a solution that (for the most part) was completely self contained and not reliant on “The Cloud.”

While Home Assistant also has documentation on how to integrate the services so you can use the Echo to issue commands, with our setup, we can still control the house via the Home Assistant Apps on our smartphones or via its web interface if our Internet connection ever goes out.

If I didn’t have you, could I figure out how to set up and use a software like Home Assistant?

Yeah! It requires a lot of reading, trial and error, and willingness to write some computer code. I had to write some code to connect Home Assistant to Amazon’s Alexa and to connect to Google’s Nest API. I also had to modify several configuration files within Home Assistant itself to tailor it to suit our needs.

You also set up automations. What are automations, and how did you set them up?

Automations are additional smart-home functions built on top of your infrastructure. They are basically a bit of code that says if this happens, then do that. In our case, I use the Home Assistant interface to identify the smart-enabled devices I want to control like lights and locks. I can use any of the items connected to Home Assistant for an automation, including the various sensors attached to the alarm sensors or our phones’ GPS.

Combining all of that, I have to think of the logic of what I want created. An example is our bedtime routine. Since our bed is a smart-enabled device, I wrote an automation that says if we are home (based on our phones’ GPS locations), in bed, and it’s after a certain time in the evening, then turn off all of the lights, set our HVAC to our desired nighttime temperature, and lock the doors. A simpler automation is turning a hallway light on at sunset and off at a desired time. Another automation we us to help conserve energy is to use motion sensors that turn off lights if there’s no movement after 15 minutes.

Is our family being tracked by others because we’re using Home Assistant?

Yes and no. Home Assistant is locked down. The connection to it is encrypted, and I only have your account and my account allowed to access it. Any attempts by others to access it are logged. If there are abnormal attempts to access the account, I’m notified.

But your phone is tracking you. Therefore, it can be assumed your cell phone manufacturer and the carrier is tracking you. Most apps that you use are tracking you.

How have you mitigated the risk to our network?

To isolate and secure our home network, I’ve set up subnetworks. We have a home network, guest network, and smart-home device network. I have limited what our devices have access to on the smart-home device network. That’s done via our router’s firewall rules and port forwarding policies.

This way, if a smart-enabled device like the TV or Echo was to be compromised by a botnet or some external nefarious actor, it mitigates the risk of compromising our trusted devices like our phones and laptops that stay on our home network.

In short, smart-enabled devices like smart bulbs are cool and useful, but they also shouldn’t be inherently trusted. Most manufacturers don’t focus on securing smart-enabled devices. They just want them to work quickly and easily for consumers.

Ugh, it’s so complicated.

You can make a home automation system simple or secure. I aim to make the system as simple as possible, while maintaining a certain desired level of security. You have to do a risk analysis and determine how simple you want it to be and how much risk you are willing to take.

How would you recommend someone get started if they wanted to use smart-enabled devices or automate their home?

The simplest solution, which doesn’t require Home Assistant, is to buy a smart bulb from your local hardware store. They go for as low as $10. Try using that with whatever app they tell you to install on your phone. From a security perspective, though, I’m not a fan of IOT [Internet of Things] devices.

What advice would you give to someone interested in learning more?

This hobby can be a money pit. First, sit down and determine what items you want to be able to control in more ways and then what do you want to automate. Once you know what you want to do, then you can look into what technologies to buy to perform those actions.

You may want to Google home automation solutions. While you’re reading, determine what skill level you are comfortable dealing with. Check out the software or interfaces available. There are several out there, and even some that aren’t free. Home Assistant is free, but there are others out there that may be more to your liking like Smart Things and Home Seer. Find what works for you.

Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

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