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ANGELA MISRI

How much do we really want smart appliances to know about us? Add to ...

Angela Misri is a journalist and podcaster who covers technology and digital culture.

It seems like the next step in digital technology. What could possibly go wrong with connecting your smart fridge to that dieting app on your phone? Except when you get up in the middle of the night for a snack and the soda drawer won’t open. And then alarms go off. And a voice that sounds startlingly like your Aunt Val starts chiding you on your lack of willpower. All because you gave your power over to a machine.

The Internet of Things promises lots of ways for technology to manage us, connecting “smart” home appliances to the Internet to improve our lives. For less than $500, you can outfit your house with all kinds of smart devices – such as a front door that unlocks as you approach it, or webcams that can literally be installed anywhere – from every corner of your house to inside a stuffed animal called Zooby in your kid’s bedroom. Samsung just issued a warning to their customers to avoid personal conversations around their smart televisions. Why? Because their TVs are listening to you – by design. Customers have to turn off the voice recognition feature because out of the box, the system is listening to you and transmitting your conversations to a server over your WiFi.

Remember when TV remote controls changed our lives forever? We all got fatter and lazier, but we were still in control. Now, imagine that you sit down in front of your TV (where you can never have a meaningful discussion again, by the way) and it decides what you should watch. In fact, programs that your TV decides are not in your best interest (probably based on a survey you took when you set up the appliance) don’t even show up on your screen.

Take your laptop over to someone of the opposite gender and you will see just how much technologies such as Facebook and Google determine what you see based on criteria you gave it when you signed up. The Facebook “trends” you see on the right side of your wall are based on algorithms, personal data and behaviour, all collected by the social network.

How about the new shower head that decides when you need to get out of the bath? The Hydroa Smart Shower has LED lights that communicate how much water you’ve used, essentially guilting you into environmental responsibility.

Ever had an app fail on your phone? Of course, we all have. But what happens when that app controls the locks on every door in your house? Is there a ctrl-alt-delete for that?

In case you think giving all that choice to a machine is a fair trade for a more efficient lifestyle, remember that all that spare time you get from dimming your lights using an app is just going to be poured back into skimming Pinterest.

It’s not just nosy apps or the fallibility of technology we’re inviting into our lives. There are also the other humans who now have access to our Internet-enabled homes.

Once all these appliances and machines are connected, any of them can be used as a way into your network. It comes down to the weakest link. Your computer might be safe, but nobody secures their thermostat.

Remember when TV shows would feature someone copying their mark’s key by pressing it into a bar of soap to steal the shape? We’ve come a long way, baby. The Viper Smart Start is a motorist’s dream, with the ability to locate, unlock and start your car from an app on your phone. But its greatest feature is also its greatest vulnerability, opening your previously secure car to clever programmers who, it turns out, can DIY a universal remote to open any car for $32 in parts.

It’s an old Aaron Sorkin line, but if decisions are truly made “by those who show up,” what happens when you abdicate your decisions to machines and appliances?

Just how far does that nosiness extend? Wait until your car won’t idle because of environmental concerns. What about the app that texts your mother because you haven’t watered your orchids? Just how much do we want our Internet of Things to know about us? If you think your Aunt Val is judgy, just wait.

I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping my social-media apps don’t speak to my fridge. I’m sure not going to help translate.

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