It’s get­ting harder to avoid tech that tracks your every move

The Mercury News Weekend - - BUSINESS - ByAnick Jes­da­nun

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.

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