Home Items Are Getting Smarter and Creepier, Like It or Not

January 7, 2019 Updated: January 7, 2019

NEW YORK—One day, finding an oven that only cooks food may be as tough as buying a TV that lets people change the channel.

Internet-connected “smarts” are creeping into cars, refrigerators, thermostats, toys, and just about everything else at home. CES 2019, the gadget show opening Tuesday in Las Vegas, will showcase many of these products, including an oven that coordinates recipes and a toilet that flushes with a voice command.

Internet-connected “smarts” are creeping into cars, refrigerators, thermostats and just about everything else in your home. (AP)

With every additional smart device at home, companies are able to gather more details about individuals’ daily life. Some information can even be used to help advertisers target customers more precisely than through their smartphones.

“It’s decentralized surveillance,” said Center for Digital Democracy executive director Jeff Chester, 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. Research firm IDC predicts 1.3 billion smart devices will ship worldwide in 2022, twice as many as 2018.

Companies claim to be building products for convenience, not snooping but Amazon, Google and other partners enabling the intelligence can use information collected to customize their services and ads.

Whirlpool, for instance, is testing an oven that features a window doubling as a display. It is possible to see what is roasting inside while also viewing an animation showing where to place the turkey for optimal cooking.

The oven can sync with digital calendars and recommend recipes based on how much free time the person cooking has. The appliance can help coordinate multiple recipes to help avoid undercooking meals. The interior camera has the ability to zoom-in to show whether the cheese on the lasagna has browned enough, without requiring the oven door to be opened.

Meanwhile, Kohler’s Numi has designed a smart toilet that responds to voice commands to raise, lower the lid, and flush. All these functions can be completed through a mobile app as well. The company said the product offers hands-free options in a very personal setting for people. The toilet seat is also heated and capable of playing music and the news through its speakers.

Kohler has also created a bathtub that adjusts water temperature and a kitchen faucet that dispenses just the right amount of water for a recipe.

For the most part, consumers are not asking for these features. After all, before cars were invented, people might have only known 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 to check on the meal, losing heat in the process.

“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 allows people to monitor its contents while grocery shopping. Its washing machine can send alerts to smart TVs, providing an alert the laundry is ready.

Other connected items at the trade show include a:

— fishing rod that tracks the fisherman’s location to build an online map of where the most catches occurred

— toothbrush that recommends where to brush more

— fragrance diffuser with the ability to customize the smell via a smartphone app.

These features are poised to join internet-connected security cameras, door locks, and thermostats that are already on the market. The latter can work with sensors to turn the heat down automatically when leaving home.

Chester said consumers feel the need to keep up with neighbors when buying appliances with the smartest smarts. He said all conveniences can be a “powerful drug to help people forget the fact that they are also being spied on.”

Gadgets with voice controls typically do not transmit data back to company servers until they are activated with a trigger word, such as “Alexa” or “Okay Google.” However, devices have sometimes misheard 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. In addition to this background conversations can be stored with voice recordings and resurface with hacking or as part of lawsuits or investigations.

Storing personal information on what food is cooked or stored in the fridge might seem innocuous. However, if insurers obtain this data, they might charge customers more for having an unhealthy diet, warned Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. Stephens said it might even be possible to infer ethnicity based on the food consumed.

Manufacturers are instead emphasizing the benefits. Data collection from a smart faucet, for instance, allows Kohler’s app to display how much water is dispensed. Water bills typically show water use for the whole home but not individual taps.

The market for smart devices is still small, but growing. Kohler estimates that in a few years, smart appliances will comprise of 10 percent of sales revenue. Though the features are initially limited to premium models, such as the $7,000 toilet, they will also eventually appear in entry-level products as manufacturing costs dwindle.

“Dumb” TVs are rare these days, as the vast majority of TVs ship with internet connections and apps, regardless of whether those features are requested or not.

“It becomes a check-box item for the TV manufacturer,” IHS Markit analyst Paul Gagnon said. For a dumb TV set, he said, shoppers now have to search for an off-brand, entry-level model with smaller screens—or visit parts pf the world where streaming services are rare.

Consumer reports say many TV makers collect and share users’ viewing habits. Vizio agreed to pay $2.5 million of penalties in 2017 to settle cases with the Federal Trade Commission and New Jersey officials.

“Dumb” cars are also headed to the scrapyard. Research firm BI Intelligence estimates that by 2020, three out of every four cars sold worldwide will have connectivity capabilities. No serious incidents have occurred in the United States, Europe, and Japan but a red flag has already been raised in China, where automakers have shared the location of connected cars with the government.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,” Stephens said. “Does one really need a refrigerator that keeps track of everything in it and tells you you are running out of milk?”

By Anick Jesdanun