Smart Locks 101
Smart locks are as much a game-changer to modern security as digital and electronic locks were when first introduced. Decades ago, the only way to open a lock was using a physical key, until keypads and electronic locks were introduced that eliminated the need for keys altogether. Now, with the modern smart lock, you don’t even need a keypad—all you need is your smartphone and the electronic receiver built into the lock!
The truth is that keys give thieves easy access to your home. Manual locks with keyholes can be easily picked with basic lockpicking tools, and it doesn’t take a lot of practice to develop the ability to break into manual locks. Digital locks step up security, but even they can be easily fooled with a few simple tools.
Smart locks, on the other hand, are drastically harder to bypass or crack. They require a specific connection between your smartphone and the lock itself, so the security is far more secure—exactly what you want when buying a lock! While there are flaws (no lock is without them), smart locks are most likely the safest locking system when used correctly.
The thing that sets smart locks apart from digital and electronic locks is the fact that it’s connected to your smartphone. While digital locks require you to enter a numerical combination on the keypad and electronic locks require some sort of keycard or electronic opening device, a smart lock syncs with the app on your smartphone. Your “key” is the data stored in that smartphone app. As soon as you trigger it on the app, the data is sent to the lock in order to open or close it. Thus, you never need to worry about losing the key—no more than you need to worry about losing your smartphone.
Benefits of Smart Locks
If you’re thinking about upgrading your security, it may be time to consider a smart lock. Here are a few reasons why:
- Stylish – There’s no doubt about it, “smart” home devices are all the rage these days! People are always looking for faster, easier, and more convenient, so these smart products are being produced en masse. Now, you can find all manner of locking systems to use in your home—not the clunky, oversized things you may be accustomed to with electronic or digital locks, but sleek and stylish locks. Many of them actually appear like a regular manual lock, as the built-in electronics are compact enough that they can be concealed in a microchip or microprocessor. Your house will look more stylish than ever with a smart lock!
- Maximum convenience – Don’t worry about having to carry around a bunch of keys or forgetting your digital passcode! With a smart lock, all you need is your smartphone and reliable Wi-Fi—which you’re likely already paying for anyway. The smart lock stores not only your code, but added guest and visitor codes, as well as temporary codes for your cleaner or dog walker. It’s easy to update your security using your existing home automation devices and connect your smart lock to your home security system. With everything done via your smartphone—on an app that takes up minimal storage space—you’ll find it’s more convenient than ever.
- Keys include as a back-up – Yes, there is a chance that a power outage could cause you to be locked out of your home, or your smartphone could get lost or stolen. In case of emergency, most late-model smart locks come with a built-in key lock that you can use as a back-up. These manual locks will be incredibly difficult to pick, thanks to the added electronic security, but they’ll give you an easy way in just in case you get locked out by accident.
- No need for spare keys –Rather than bothering with a key in a hide-a-key or underneath your doormat, a smart lock provides you easy access without the need for a back-up. If you’re worried about someone else getting into your home, a smart lock is definitely a good option to have a back-up plan for getting into your home without making a physical key others can find and use.
- Excellent guest access – Want someone to check on your pets, bring in the mail, or water your plants while you’re out of town? Expecting a delivery but know you’re going to be away from home? Thanks to smart locks, you’ll be able to provide guest access to anyone who needs to get into your home. The one-time code will allow them to open the door just once, get in, and do what they need to do. Once the door closes behind them, the smart lock automatically re-engages and their code will no longer allow them access to the home. Whether you’re dealing with a dog walker, cleaning service, or delivery service, the guest access features available via your smart lock make letting others into your home safely an absolute breeze.
As you can see, there are a lot of reasons to consider using a smart lock! Though the initial investment may be a bit high, you’ll find it’s one that will pay off many times over throughout the lifespan of your lock.
The Battle of the Locks
When considering a lock for your home, you have three basic options to choose from: mechanical, or a “dumb” lock; digital/electronic, which open using an access code, key card, or some other electronic device; and a smart lock, which is opened using your smartphone.
Below, we’ve drawn a comparison between the three to help you know which will suit your needs best:
Mechanical or “dumb” locks are the classic, tried and true option for your home. They’re made to open with a key that you insert and turn. Thanks to the tumbler design, your home will be secure against anyone who doesn’t have the key. Or, anyone who doesn’t know how to pick locks.
The main downside of mechanical locks is that they can be picked. Modern lockpicking tools can open manual locks in a matter of seconds, not minutes. Even with basic tools, it can be very easy to get a lock open with minimal effort and difficulty.
Then there’s the issue of losing your key. If you don’t keep the key handy—such as on the key ring to your car or keychain—you may find yourself locked out of your house. A spare key can solve that, but then you run the risk of someone else finding your spare key.
On the plus side, mechanical locks won’t ever lock you out of the house because there’s no Bluetooth or WiFi connection, or the power in the area has gone out. Their simplicity is what makes them so useful—that, and their incredibly low price tag.
Digital or electronic locks require some sort of electric current to open. Typically, the lock will be connected to some sort of electronic or digital opening system, such as a keypad or electronic receiver programmed to open at a pre-set electronic signal. These locks require no keys, but the use of a passcode or electronic key-device.
The main benefit of these locks is that they can’t easily be picked. After all, with no key hole, there’s nowhere for thieves to insert lockpicks to bypass or open the locking mechanisms.
Another benefit of these locks is that they tend to be very convenient. All you need is a 4 to 8-digit access number memorized, and you’ll always be able to gain access to your home. Modern electronic locks may even include biometric devices—fingerprint scanners, retina scanners, even voice receivers—that are specifically attuned to your unique biometric signature.
However, on the downside, these locks can often be bypassed. Many sophisticated tools exist that allow thieves to crack electronic locks. They’re pricier than basic lockpicking sets, but anyone who wants to get into your home will be able to find the tools available to do so.
Electronic locks also tend to be more expensive than basic locks, thanks to the need for electronic or digital components installed. They can be bigger, clunkier, and draw more attention than a simple manual lock. And, there’s the risk that the lock will stop working—or even automatically open—in case of a power outage.
Smart locks rely on a WiFi or Bluetooth connection to your smartphone to open. Without a connection to your app, it’s as inert as a manual lock. However, once you bring your phone within Bluetooth range or connect via the WiFi, the lock activates and allows you to easily open the door.
Smart locks are, without a doubt, the most convenient form of locks. You can unlock the door at the press of a button on your phone, or you can even program the lock to be voice-activated. With guest access, one-time use, and multiple user settings, smart locks make it easier than ever to get into your home.
On the downside, smart locks are the priciest of all, and the ones most prone to failing. Even the latest generation of smart locks still have bugs and glitches that need to be worked out. The apps can also be a bit buggy, and can fail at the most inconvenient time. If your home WiFi isn’t reliable or is prone to failing, you may find yourself locked out of your home.
However, modern smart locks solve that problem by including a key hole as a backup in case the electricity is cut off or the lock app isn’t working. The key hole is only for emergencies, but it’s a useful backup that electronic and digital locks often don’t include.
Smart Lock Features to Consider
If you’re shopping for a smart lock, here are a few of the best and most useful features to consider:
“Smart”-ness – How smart is your lock? Is it designed to be used only with Bluetooth connection or WiFi signal to the app? Can it be integrated with home automation systems or is it a standalone? Can it be connected to a home monitoring system or video cameras? The more versatile the lock, the pricier it will be, but it may be worth paying a bit more for a “smarter” lock.
Integration options – If the lock itself can’t be integrated with the home automation hub—such as Alexa, Google Home, or Nest—you may be able to purchase a “bridge” or add-on module that connects it for you. It’s a bit more to spend, but it can turn a simple standalone lock into one more of a broad range of home security features.
Retrofit or replace – Many modern smart locks are designed to be placed only on the inside of your door, and they simply work with existing door knobs and locking hardware to provide added security. This is very important if you have elegant or expensive door hardware that you don’t want to replace. However, if you don’t care about your existing locking system, you can usually find cheaper smart locks that are designed to replace the built in lock.
Back-up entry –Every smart lock needs at least one secondary access method. Manual locks (with a key) are best in case of power loss, but digital/electronic entry may be better if you’re just worried about losing your smartphone or locking yourself out of the house.
Guest access – This is a crucial feature if you expect to have people coming in and out of your home: dog walkers, delivery services, cleaning personnel, etc. Allowing one-time access to your home via a guest code makes it easy for you to keep your home safe while still making it convenient for your guests.
Geofencing – For those who tend to be forgetful, this is a very handy feature to have. This basically sets a “perimeter” around your home, and once your smartphone exits that perimeter, the lock automatically locks itself. It can also open automatically once you enter the perimeter, making it easier for you to get in your home without having to pull out your smartphone—ideal for if you’re coming home with an armload of groceries.
Power backup – The fact that your lock is digital means that it relies on electrical current to remain active. So what happens when the power shuts off? Thankfully, many modern smart locks come with a battery back-up, using a 9V battery to provide enough power to get your door open in case of a power outage.
How Safe Are Smart Locks?
This is the #1 question that most people want answered when considering a smart lock.
Smart locks eliminate the need for a key, which means the lock can’t be picked using lockpicking tools. The fact that it’s paired directly to your smartphone means that you, the owner of said phone, should be the only one with access to the lock.
However, this is a problem if your phone gets stolen. Even if the thief can’t enter the passcode, if they get close enough to your smart lock, it may detect the geofencing presents and automatically unlock itself, letting them enter your home easily. And, if you’ve got the “Smart Lock” setting programmed into your phone, it will unlock without a passcode the moment it detects the presence of your smart lock. This is one occasion where convenience can be turned against you, affecting your safety.
Smart locks aren’t without glitches and problems. In mid-2017, an update to one smart lock’s firmware caused a malfunction, with more than 500 customers affected. The lock company only replaced or repaired the locks once they were mailed back, which left hundreds of homes unguarded—or homeowners struggling to find a backup plan.
Hacking web-based devices is always a risk, and it’s a problem that more and more security experts are noticing. Not only is owner carelessness a major risk, but even the most careful owners can discover that their locks are fully hackable. At DEF CON 2016 (a hacker convention), it was proven that 75% of the modern smart locks had vulnerabilities that made it possible to hack them. Bluetooth connections, in particular, can make the locks vulnerable, which is why so many are now using the added layer of WiFi security.
Limitations on the locking hardware compatibility may also affect security. Smart locks may not be able to work with thumb turn deadbolts rather than the more secure double cylinder deadbolts, which means the bolts can be open to removal—with nothing more than a simple flathead screwdriver. The fact that smart locks are designed to be used with existing locking hardware—and only a limited selection—may mean that the hardware itself is vulnerable, even if the digital locking mechanism is secure.