HOME ITEMS ARE BECOMING SMARTER — AND CREEPIER
It’s getting harder to avoid tech that tracks your every move
One day, finding an oven that just cooks foodmay be as tough as buying a TV that merely lets you change channels.
Internet-connected “smarts” are creeping into cars, refrigerators, thermostats, toys and just about everything else in your home. CES 2019, the annual gadget show going on in Las Vegas this week, is showcasing many of these products, in- cluding an oven that coordinates your recipes and a toi- let that flushes with a voice command.
With every additional smart device in your home, companies are able to gather more details about your daily life. Some of that can be used to help advertisers target you — more precisely than they could with just the smartphone you carry.
“It’s decentralized surveillance,” said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington- based digital privacy advocate. “We’re living in a world where we’re tethered to some online service stealthily gathering our information.”
Yet consumers so far seem to be welcoming these devices. The research firm IDC
projects that 1.3 billion smart devices will ship worldwide in 2022, twice as many as 2018.
Companies say they are building these products not for snooping but for convenience, although Amazon, Google and other partners enabling the intelligence can use the details they collect to customize their services and ads.
Whirlpool, for instance, is testing an oven whose window doubles as a display. You’ll still be able to see what’s roasting inside, but the glass can now display animation pointing to where toplace the turkey for optimal cooking.
The oven can sync with your digital calendar and recommend recipes based on howmuch time you have. It can help coordinate multiple recipes, so that you’re not undercooking the side dishes in focusing toomuch on the entree. A camera inside lets you zoom in to see if the cheese on the lasagna has browned enough, without opening the oven door.
As for that smart toilet, Kohler’s Numi will respond to voice commands to raise or lower the lid— or to flush. You can do it from an app, too. The company says it’s all about offering hands- free options in a setting that’s very personal for people. The toilet is also heated and can play music and the news through its speakers.
For the most part, consumers aren’t asking for these specific features. After all, before cars were invented, people might have knownonly to ask for faster horses. “We try to be innovative in ways that customers don’t realize they need,” Samsung spokesman Louis Masses said.
Whirlpool said insights can come from something as simple as watching consumers open the oven door several times tocheckon the meal, losing heat in the pro- cess.
“They do not say to us, ‘Please tell me where to put (food) on the rack, or do algorithm-based cooking,’” said Doug Searles, general manager for Whirlpool’s research arm, WLabs. “They tell us the results that are most important to them.”
Samsung has several voice-enabled products, including a fridge that comes with an app that lets you check on its contents while you’re grocery shopping. New this year: Samsung’s washing machines can send alerts to its TVs — smart TVs, of course — so you know your laundry is ready while watching Netflix.
Chester said consumers feel the need to keep up with their neighbors when they buy appliances with the smartest smarts. He said all the conveniences can be “a powerful drug to help people forget the fact that they are also being spied on.”
Gadgets with voice controls typically aren’t transmitting any data back to company servers until you activate them with a trigger word, suchas “Alexa” or “OK Google.” But devices have sometimes mis heard innocuous words as legitimate commands to record and send private conversations.
Even when devices work properly, commands are usually stored indefinitely. Companies can use the data to personalize experiences — including ads. Beyond that, background conversationsmay be storedwith the voice recordings and can resurface with hacking or as part of lawsuits or investigations.
Knowing what you cook or stock inyour fridgemight seem innocuous. But if insurers get hold of the data, theymight charge youmore for unhealthy diets, warned Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in SanDiego. He also said it might be possible to infer ethnicitybasedon food consumed.
Manufacturers are instead emphasizing the bene- fits: Data collection fromthe smart faucet, for instance, allows Kohler’s app to display howmuch water is dispensed. ( Water bills typically showwater use for the whole home, not individual taps.)
Themarket for smart devices is still small, but growing. Kohler estimates that in a few years, smart appliances will make up 10 percent of its revenue. Though the features are initially limited to premium models — such as the $7,000 toilet — they should eventually appear in entry-level products, too, as costs come down.
As for TVs, Consumer Reports says many TV makers collect and share users’ viewing habits. Vizio agreed to $2.5 million in penalties in 2017 to settle cases with the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey officials.
Consumers can decide not to enable these connections. They can also vote with their wallets, Stephens said.
“I’m a firm believer that simple is better. If you don’t need to have these so-called enhancements, don’t buy them,” he said. “Does one really need a refrigerator that keeps track of everything in it and tells you you are running out of milk?”
A woman demonstrates the Artemis smart mirror at the CareOS booth. The interactive mirror has video capture, virtual try-ons, facial and object recognition, and can give the user video instruction on specific makeup products, among other things.
Whirlpool is creating smart cooking appliances that can sync with your digital calendar and make recipe recommendations.