Illustration of: I am afraid Dave
Dave deactivates HALexa. In memoriam Douglas Rain, the unforgettable voice of HAL9000 in Stanley Kubrick' 1968 movie: "2001: A Space Odyssey".

This post is quite a bit different from the others. It describes the thoughts and feelings, which you might encounter, when you suddenly realize, you have the control over somebody else’s smart home.

His name is Dave.

The second part, the updates under the post, describe the journey trying to help the manufacturers to fix this privacy bug. It’s an odyssey, hence the title of this post.

It’s one of those days. I am going through the different settings of our assistants. We are one of those crazy households with all three: Siri, Alexa and Google. I am thinking:

Oh, these settings are changing a lot, really need to update the posts here with new screenshots and How-To’s … 

By the way, this happens frequently! I mean the thinking, not so much the updates. 

So, I am sitting there, opening the Alexa app, and just because there was something with Philips Hue and Google Home the other day, I decide to swipe through the lights. 

A-ha, the rooms are now listed as lights. Hm, the last time I checked, this looked different. Maybe not, not sure … Wonder, whether this has an impact on the voice commands? Well, we haven’t noticed anything, have we? Maybe, because we’re talking more to Siri? We should really spend our time equally with our assistants. How else can we compare them and write up our impressions …

And while I am thinking and swiping through this crazy list of too many lights – yes, we are  obviously Philips Hue fans – I am glancing over our neatly ordered Hues, all named by location and numbered. We can still memorize their names after many years, and can yell at each of them independently, through all three of our assistants.

But we never do that, we use scenes.

As I swipe around and think and swipe …

“Bedroom Dave”

appears.

Screenshot of Alexa App Bedroom Dave is Unresponsive
Bedroom Dave: Just another unresponsive light …

Oh, “Bedroom Dave”, what’s that? I mean, who’s that? Strange. I must have tested something, ages ago, and forgot to set it back? Hm. Probably.

The device appears unresponsive. That’s not so unusual for our Hues. Our system grew to over many lights, spread over 2 Hue Bridges. And though they’re bathed in their ZigBee mesh network, in some cases so close to each other, that they could whisper: “Hello”. Still, sometimes one or the other simply says: nothing. 

“Bedroom Karen”

Hold on.

What? Who is Karen? Karen? No, no, no. This is weird. I must have tested some crazy setup and simply forgot it. I am getting old.

I am old.

Hm, this device is also unresponsive.

Screenshot of Alexa App Bedroom Dave Light Settings
Bedroom Dave, light settings …

Let’s check out the light information. Connected via Philips Lighting, a dimmable light. Hm. Color capabilities: None.

Wait, Dave’s light? The same.

This is the moment, when the shock creeps in.

We only have color lights.

Silence.

No thinking.

Nothing.

While I am not thinking, I am still fumbling with my smart phone. I obviously do this while I am thinking and not thinking. A terrible habit! My thumb slides across the brightness slider. From the “little sun” to the “a little bigger” sun. Somewhere in the middle, my thumb stops.

A message briefly says “Waiting for Philips Lighting”. The small message “Device is unresponsive” disappears.

Screenshot Alexa App Bedroom Dave light is ON
Dave’s Bedroom light is ON

The next message is:

“Light is on”

“Brightness set to 41%”

Silence.

The light is on in Dave’s bedroom.

I am still nervously swiping away with this enlightening slider. Brightness set to 82%. Brightness set to 46%. Brightness set to 1%.

It takes you ages to realize that you are controlling someone else’s light. You don’t see it!

Brightness set to 32%. Brightness set to 99%.

Dave might be in bed or even asleep! Maybe, you idiot just woke him up!

Brightness set to 53%.

Hey, stop this!

Brightness set to 25%.

Stop this, now! It’s Dave’s light, his bedroom and his privacy!

Brightness set to 1%.

The light is off in Dave’s bedroom.

As I am writing this, I am trying  to structure the psychological evolution encountering this technical incident. I mean, what has just happened?

I am trying to map my emotional states to the common phases of grief: denial, anger, bargaining and depression, eventually followed by acceptance. Doesn’t work. My smart home mind is jumping around like a rabbit, trying to escape his fiercest enemy. Denial, anger, depression, anger, denial, denial, anger, denial, and so on. I never really grasped this concept.

Technical people, usually try to understand things on a technical level, especially when it’s technical things. With relief, I slowly begin to realize, there is this other half of my brain, the logical half, sitting right there, next to this emotional mess. 

It was a tough decision to write about this.

On one hand this appears to be such a huge “smart” home flaw, that I cannot just let it go in silence. I immediately checked if there are any other devices, from other categories.

Thankfully, no Dave and Karen camera feeds, thermostats, smart l … locks.

What about our devices in other people homes? How often do people actually check their configuration, to see if they are only controlling their own devices with an “Alexa, turn off all lights!”.

On the other hand, there’s Dave and Karen. We’ve never met. Not sure how they would feel about some stranger documenting how he controls their lights. Hopefully they are humorous folks, but what if not? Would Dave react like Kubrick’s Dave in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, take a screwdriver, and deactivate HALexa?

I am afraid, Dave!

First, I tried to find Dave and Karen. I reached out through social media into the largest Philips Hue customer community and explained my situation. I would never write about this, if it’s not OK for Dave and Karen. There were a couple of responses, but unfortunately not from Dave and Karen.

I am not going to reveal much more about their setup. Just, that I found two other lights, this time colored. According to their scenes they are Packers fans and have already prepared a scene for Christmas. And no, I won’t tell you the name of their bedroom scene.

Frankly speaking, while typing this, Dave and Karen’s lights remind me of Schrödingers cat, being both “on” and “off” at the same time, since we cannot observe them. But that’s quantum mechanics, not smart lighting.

Here’s a summary of indicators, why we are controlling Dave and Karen’s lights:

  • We don’t own non-coloured lights.
  • Unresponsive lights in our local setup, behave completely different: The message on top “Device is unresponsive” does not disappear and they always jump back to “Light is off. Brightness set to 0%”. You cannot create the screenshot I took above, with a local unresponsive light.
  • I couldn’t find Dave’s bedroom light in any other application, be it Siri’s HomeKit or Google’s Home app. Also not in the Philips Hue app. These lights are not on our Hue bridge.
  • Alexa has a nice feature of not forgetting which smart home devices were linked to her. She usually doesn’t delete smart devices when synchronizing, hence leaving us with devices and scenes, we need to manually “forget” in case we change something. This approach is much more likely to “catch” and remember unknown lights, coming in through our cloud connections, than Google’s approach of wiping every smart home device when synchronizing. Siri is completely different, even Apple doesn’t know our devices or how we are using them.
  • When we turn off all lights with Alexa, there is no error response.

Dave, Stop! Stop, will you?

Let’s quickly write down some indicators, why we might not be controlling Dave’s lights, just to calm down a bit:

  • The Alexa app might have bugs and display that we are controlling lights, we are not controlling. It caches Dave and Karen’s light state. When I force-quit the Alexa app, it re-initializes with Dave and Karen’s lights being unresponsive and off. Any light state I’ve set before seems not to be “saved” on the Schrödinger lights. But that might be just another Alexa bug.
  • When I try to voice control Dave’s light, Alexa comes back with: “Sorry! The Hub the device Bedroom Dave connected to is not responding. Please check it’s network connection and power supply.”

Dave, let’s have Amazon and Philips analyze what’s going on here.

And meanwhile, please don’t ask Alexa to open the pod bay doors!

Keep you posted!

Updates

Update 2018-11-20:

Philips notified me that they have forwarded the case to the proper department and will keep us informed.

Amazon has not sent any response yet.

***

Update 2018-12-03:

Philips recommends resetting my Hue bridges. I am telling them, that I already told them that Dave’s lights are not on my Hue bridges and given the many lights on 2 bridges, this is definitely not a good advice.

Amazon has not sent any response yet.

***

Update 2018-12-19

Philips asks me to contact Amazon support directly, as I see Dave’s lights only in the Amazon Alexa app and not in the Philips Hue app.

We’re on vacation. Yes, I can see and control Dave’s lights from there as well.

This makes me kind of sad and/or/and angry. It takes two to make a functional integration: Amazon and Philips in this case. To implement, and keep it working, is a shared responsibility of both manufacturers. The technical, potentially very complex resolution, of where a bug is located – on Philips or Amazon side – should be never, ever, pushed to us customers to resolve.

Amazon has not sent any response yet.

Anyway, we’re on vacation.

***

Update 2019-01-07

We are back from vacation.

Responding to Philips, that Dave’s lights could only have ended up in our configuration through Philips Hue API’s. I am not able to resolve, whether this is a Philips or Amazon bug. I can assume, if I see Dave’s Philips Hue lights in my – whatever assistant, Siri, Alexa or Google – configuration, those Philips Hue lights came through Philips Hue API’s to this assistant. I am inclined to classify this defect as a Philips Hue privacy issue and believe, if Dave could read this, he would agree. I am still, after two months, very happy to help to resolve this issue, but this obviously needs first to be escalated to the right level within Philips.

Amazon has not sent any response yet.

I am sincerely very sad having to rename this post from “2018: A Smart Home Odyssey – I am afraid, Dave!” to “2019: A Smart Home Odyssey – Sorry Dave, I am afraid, I can’t do that!”.

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