A Freedom-Respecting Smart Home

Thinking of buying IoT gadgets for Home automation?

“Which brand? Amazon Alexa or Google or Apple HomeKit?”

NO! Big Tech makes technology that best serves Big Tech. We don't have to accept it, once we learn there's an alternative.

Time I Learned: our smart home can respect our freedom.

What's the problem?

Mainstream IoT devices are overwhelmingly sold with “cloud” connectivity.

“Simply use our app to access your device.”

What this really means is you rent the use of your device as a service from the vendor. The vendor lets you use the hardware you “bought” in ways limited to what they want you to do, for an unspecified time, until they discontinue or change that service and require you to buy a new one.

But in the adverts they show their system working beautifully. What's wrong with that really? Goodness me, what isn't wrong with it? Your command to turn your light on goes out from your phone over the Internet to Vendor's computer, and from there back to your light which then turns on... after a while when the internet is slow. Your security camera feed shows up in your Vendor's system account... except when they mess up and send your camera feed to someone else's account. (Yes, that happened.) Their communications are poorly secured and get hacked. (Yes, lots of times.) Their company goes bust overnight and all your devices stop working. (Yes, that too.)

What's the Solution?

The alternative is that we can use IoT devices that are locally controlled, that depend only on our own local network, and therefore can respond fast no matter what our Internet connection is doing, and remain solely under our own control no matter what happens to the Vendor.

My recommendation for a home automation control centre:

Home Assistant <home-assistant.io>

Home Assistant lets you control and monitor everything — doorbells, lights, cameras, action! — and wrenches back your local control over Big Tech branded devices from Amazon, Google, Apple and the rest.

“Open source home automation that puts local control and privacy first”

Depending on your level of technical expertise there are different ways to obtain Home Assistant. For ordinary people looking for the simplest and most reliable way, I would recommend buying a tiny stand-alone hardware device with the software pre-installed. Currently the best option would be the “Home Assistant Yellow”. If you buy the complete version, it contains a Raspberry Pi and also a Zigbee communication interface which talks wirelessly to certain home automation devices. (At the time of writing, Home Assistant Yellow is available to pre-order.)

On the other hand, with it being freedom software, you or your techie friend could set up Home Assistant on pretty much any computer such as a laptop or a Raspberry Pi. That would be a good option for experimenting with it.

For lots of information about using Home Assistant, listen to The Self-Hosted Show podcast.

For recommendations on security cameras, also consult The Self-Hosted Show.

For your smart switches, plugs, lights, temperature sensors etc.: mylocalbytes.com (UK) or cloudfree.shop (USA).

What About Other Options?

My recommendation for Home Assistant is what seems to me the best solution for most ordinary people, friends and family. Techies and the curious should take a look at these two other freedom-respecting home automation hubs.

For those building software, Mozilla WebThings is an important project providing “an open platform for monitoring and controlling devices over the web”.

What Will Julian Do?

At the time of writing I am just about to begin my home automation. My first devices are going to be:

There are lots of ways to run Home Assistant. The easiest way for me to start was an almost one-click install of Home Assistant on YUNoHost. If I outgrow that, I can run it in its own virtual machine (VM) on my ProxMox VM server. Longer term, I have been hearing that people get used to their home automation and expect it to be always available, a permanent fixture of the house. To improve reliability, by taking my general-purpose servers out of the equation, I would seriously consider moving it to a Home Assistant Yellow self-contained physical device.

On my phone I installed the official Home Assistant companion app from f-droid. As well as providing access to the HA dashboards and configuration, this app also adds a Home Assistant integration that monitor's the phone's power stats (battery level, etc.) and optionally lots more kinds of statistics.

One I get it up and running with the first one or two integrations, I might try: