The IoT-enabled cat flap means security gives 'paws' for thought

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman April 27, 2017
A UK-based smart pet products company knows that when it comes to keeping customer data safe, it doesn't have the luxury of nine lives.

The basic insecurity of many so-called ‘smart’ devices is only now becoming clear as the Internet of Things (IoT) gathers pace. From interactive teddy bears to connected televisions, it seems that many manufacturers are taking short cuts or overlooking security entirely in the rush to get new gadgets to market.

Consumers, quite rightly, are nervous. A survey of over 4,000 US and UK adults, released this week by identity and access management company Gigya, reveals that more than two-thirds (69 percent) are either ‘very concerned’ or ‘concerned’ about the security of their personal data on connected devices such as home appliances and fitness trackers. Americans are more worried than their UK counterparts, it seems, with 73 percent expressing concern, compared to 66 percent of UK consumers.

It’s not a risk that Nick Hill, founder and managing director of smart pet product company SureFlap, is prepared to take. The Cambridge, UK-based company’s customers put a great deal of trust in its products, he says, when it comes to the care and feeding of their much-loved pets:

There’s been a huge amount of stuff in the media around IoT and security issues - and with our brand, and our care for our brand, and for what we’ve built up, we don’t want to be anywhere even close to a security problem. We need our customers to trust us.

 Smart catflap

As a result, in order to underpin its smart catflaps, pet doors and feeders, which are controlled by a pet’s existing veterinary-implanted microchip to prevent daring forays by intruder animals, SureFlap spent a great deal of time and effort pondering how it might best implement an effective and secure IoT back-end system. As Hill explains:

When we first started looking, this was really before the existence of today’s many commercial IoT platforms and we originally looked at trying to create something ourselves, but very quickly, it became clear that this was a huge task. While we could certainly have created a proof of concept, scaling that up to support mass-market products, with all the requirements around security and stability - well, it just wasn’t viable.

Instead, the company settled on using the Xively (pronounced ‘zively’) IoT platform from LogMeIn, which provides the link from catflap to SureFlap and vice versa.

Two-way comms flow

This two-way flow of data is important, because increasingly, SureFlap’s products aren’t just about customers monitoring their pets’ comings and goings via a smartphone app when they’re away from home, but also about being able to control those products remotely as well - restricting a cat’s access to the great outdoors at certain hours of day or night, for example.

Xively’s MQTT messaging broker means that SureFlap’s development team can be confident that data is handled securely, says Hill, while they get on with the work of enhancing existing products and developing new ones:

Xively convinced us that MQTT was the best technical protocol for us to follow, with their system delivering what we need to have all our settings and alerts in place, logging those through the gateway in the customer’s home, through their router, directly to the Xively platform, with all the stability and security that is critical if you don’t want to come unstuck.

Over time, the data generated by pet’s activities builds up to create a valuable picture for owners of its health and mood. Increasingly, SureFlap is exploring new ways to present this data to them on their smartphones, so that they can tailor their petcare accordingly. Hill explains:

Once you've got the end-to-end infrastructure in place - with a connected product communicating over a low-power wireless network in the home and data flowing into the cloud onto the XIvely platform - then adding more functionality isn’t hard. You’re just creating another event or another control in pursuit of a particular experience for a pet and their owner. All you’re limited by is your imagination.

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