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Technology Makes Home Items Smarter But Creepier

I'm a firm believer that simple is better. If you don't need to have these so-called enhancements, don't buy them

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Technology, home, Privacy
Yoon Lee, right, senior vice president, Samsung Electronics America, uses the Family Board on a refrigerator during a Samsung news conference at CES International in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

One day, finding an oven that just cooks food may 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 gadget show opening Tuesday in Las Vegas, will showcase many of these products, including an oven that coordinates your recipes and a toilet 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 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.

Technology, Home
Dave VanderWaal of LG Electronics USA shows off ProActive Customer Care, an AI-powered customer service tool for home appliances during 2019 International CES in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

 

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.

‘Smart’ features

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 to place the turkey for optimal cooking.

The oven can sync with your digital calendar and recommend recipes based on how much time you have. It can help coordinate multiple recipes, so that you’re not undercooking the side dishes in focusing too much 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.

Kohler also has a tub that adjusts water temperature to your liking and a kitchen faucet that dispenses just the right amount of water for a recipe.

For the most part, consumers aren’t asking for these specific features. After all, before cars were invented, people might have known only 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 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.

Samsung, Home
Arvin Baalu, vice president of product management at Harman International, talks about the Samsung Digital Cockpit during a Samsung news conference at the 2019 CES in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

Other connected items at CES include:

* a fishing rod that tracks your location to build an online map of where you’ve made the most catches;

* a toothbrush that recommends where to brush more;

* a fragrance diffuser that lets you control how your home smells from a smartphone app.

These 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 you leave home.

‘Being spied on’

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, such as “Alexa” or “OK Google.” But 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. Beyond that, background conversations may be stored with the voice recordings and can resurface with hacking or as part of lawsuits or investigations.

Knowing what you cook or stock in your fridge might seem innocuous. But if insurers get hold of the data, they might charge you more for unhealthy diets, warned Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. He also said it might be possible to infer ethnicity based on food consumed.

Toyota, home
Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, unveils Toyota’s latest autonomous-driving test vehicle for the Toyota Research Institute, called P4, based on the new-generation Lexus LS500h hybrid luxury sedan, with a roof-mounted assembly with cameras and sensors, and sensors added onto the front fenders, at the Toyota news conference at CES International in Las Vegas, Jan. 7, 2019. VOA

Manufacturers are instead emphasizing the benefits: Data collection from the 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, not individual taps.)

The market for smart devices is 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.

Ditching the ‘dumb’

Consider the TV. “Dumb” TVs are rare these days, as the vast majority of TVs ship with internet connections and apps, like it or not.

“It becomes a check-box item for the TV manufacturer,” said Paul Gagnon, an analyst with IHS Markit. For a dumb one, he said, you have to search for an off-brand, entry-level model with smaller screens — or go to places in the world where streaming services aren’t common.

“Dumb” cars are also headed to the scrapyard. The research firm BI Intelligence estimates that by 2020, three out of every four cars sold worldwide will be models with connectivity. 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 been sharing location details of connected cars with the government.

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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 are running out of milk?” (VOA)

Next Story

Lack of Internet Access Hobbling West Virginians

In the town of Hinton, a 30-minute drive from Sprouting Farms, connectivity is not an issue

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Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
Hand-picked organic kale is washed and packed on site at Sprouting Farms, W.V., ready for distribution. (J. Taboh/VOA). VOA

Work starts early at Sprouting Farms in Summers County, West Virginia.

Employees in this rural region of the state handpick the organic produce, rinse, prepare and box it up on site, ready to distribute to area customers.

Connectivity is key

The farm also serves as a training center for aspiring farmers who want to learn how to grow — and market — sustainable produce.

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
The hills and valleys of West Virginia make it difficult to run fiber optic cable. VOA

The challenge is making that process profitable, says project director Fritz Boettner.

“Our bottom line, everything that we do here, is to make farming a profitable business for every farmer, not just on this farm, but every farmer in the state,” he says. “So in order to improve the bottom line for the farmer, we have to keep what I would call the food hub costs down. So that’s the cost of aggregation, distribution, marketing, all those things.”

And that, he adds, takes broadband connectivity, which is limited or unavailable in rural areas such as this.

“Right now I would say half of our farmers maybe do not have access to solid internet or even cellphone communication to make these types of transactions happen,” he says.

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And while there is fiber-optic cable available nearby, it would cost Boettner $500 a month, plus a $3,000 installation fee, to access it — a price, he says, that’s simply too expensive for small businesses like his.

“It’s just frustrating to know that very high-speed internet exists right down the road at a public school, and it can’t find its way here,” he says. “And I’m sure in West Virginia, in these small rural towns like this, it’s like this everywhere.”

The magic of broadband

In the town of Hinton, a 30-minute drive from Sprouting Farms, connectivity is not an issue.

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
The town of Hinton, West Virginia has a number of flourishing businesses, thanks to high-speed internet connectivity. VOA

Once a thriving railroad community, the town now depends on high-speed internet to connect with the outside world.

Ken Allman, who owns several businesses in the area, says his main online business venture,which connects hospitals and physicians around the world, would not exist without that access.

“The fact that our team of people in Hinton, West Virginia, are working with people in Mumbai, India, or in Tel Aviv, Israel, to solve problems in our field across the U.S. speaks to the magic of what broadband and mobile can do in a small community,” he says.

Fiber of the community

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The town is a perfect example of adaptation.

“Hinton wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the railroad in the 1870s,” Allman says. “The railroad was the broadband of the time. It brought the mail, it brought the people, it brought the cargo. It was the broadband of the time.”

Now broadband is the fiber-optic cable that runs through the community and makes commerce possible.

“It’s very difficult to operate a business without reliable broadband,” Allman says. “We require it to support our back office functions, as well as the services we deliver to our clients. … We also need mobile to support our people while they’re trying to do their jobs.

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
Organic kale is hand picked, washed and packed on site at Sprouting Farms, West Virginia, for retail and wholesale. VOA

“It’s very difficult to operate a business without reliable broadband, without reliable mobile communications as well,” he says. “The two really complement each other, and you need them in order to function on a day-to-day basis.”

An essential part of modern life

Joe Brouse agrees.

As executive director of the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, his job is to help stimulate and promote economic development in the region.

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But he says lack of connectivity is hindering that objective.

“This problem with coverage is affecting everyone,” he says. “I mean, it’s an ecosystem. You have to have businesses, they have to have employees, employees have to have places to live, and parents have to have good schools for their children. Part of being a good school in this day and age is having access to broadband.

“So businesses expect it. Households expect it. If people want to live here, they need to have access. It’s an aspect of being in the modern world.”

Hills and valleys

Internet, West Virginians, Sprouting Farms
Sandstone Falls, West Virginia. VOA

The topography of the state and low population levels are among the reasons why affordable broadband is lacking, he says.

“Population, customers, are figured into models of profit