Why I Won't Be Texting the Dishwasher: Or, Has the Consumer Electronics Industry Lost Its Mind?

In Common ByAngus Batey / 16th July 2014

Jerry Bruckheimer’s G-Force – harmless fun for kids of all ages, or a dire warning of what may happen when we network our kitchen appliances?

Clever marketing is all about timing, so it’s no surprise that the Consumer Electronics Show takes place early in January. Everyone’s still coming back to their desks, bleary-eyed and slightly befuddled after the new year celebrations; the news agenda hasn’t settled back into its relentless routines and familiar patterns, so there’s space to be filled in the media; and, culturally, we’re all pre-programmed to think of the new and the adventurous at the turn of the year, and we may therefore be prepared to suspend our common sense and applaud some piece of new kit announced at the Las Vegas show which, under a more sober analysis, we may feel is at best not worthy of such attention, or at worst is an actively bad idea.

This, surely, can be the only set of circumstances in which a major electronics manufacturer could be lauded for launching a service allowing you to have SMS conversations with your household appliances. But most of the coverage LG has received for its announcement of the HomeChat technology has been enthusiastic, as if the thing that we all most wanted to be able to do in life was to turn the cooker on while in another city. “Benefits” being touted include the ability to upload photographs to your fridge, which is something I doubt would make even the longest of lists of things I’d like to be able to do before I shuffle off this mortal coil. Perhaps I’m just old-fashioned, but I’ve never considered the fridge as among the devices I may wish to use to display photographs. Apart from anything else, I’d have difficulty passing recent snaps around when friends come to visit if the “photo frame” they were in was six-and-a-half feet tall and full of groceries.

So: is it just me, or is this the stupidest idea in the history of stupid ideas? (Answer: no, I am not entirely alone, as at least one other person shares my misgivings. And he seems to know what he’s talking about, too.) Quite apart from the focus on giving us functionality we don’t need from machines that we buy to fulfil entirely different and technologically bespoke tasks, thus adding little in terms of genuine utility or filling a real (rather than manufactured) need, the ability to remotely connect to household appliances surely introduces a raft of security vulnerabilities that will contribute to making our homes a great deal less safe than they are at present. Have these people never seen G-Force, for pity’s sakes?

(By the way: I’m not about to start arguing that fiction should be used as an authoritative guide to real-world risk – I spend a fair amount of my time researching and writing about unmanned air systems, and the level of public awareness and understanding of those technologies would be far higher were people less accepting of the autonomous-killing-machine rhetoric they absorb through films and TV – but those cute talking rodents had a point. If infosec professionals only have time to watch one kids’ adventure movie about furry secret agents combating a global threat to networked home appliances, that’s the one they should go for.)

These devices already carry a level of risk. It’s rare, but not unknown, for washing machines to catch fire. Conventional wisdom suggests you should only have them running while you’re in the house, just in case. People are already daft enough to leave their homes while in the middle of cooking meals, with predictable enough consequences. What’s going to happen when they’re encouraged to initiate that extra spin cycle while at work, or to text their oven so that dinner is waiting when they arrive home rather than half an hour afterwards? And, surely, if you need your fridge to text you to remind you to buy more milk, you probably shouldn’t be allowed out on your own in the first place. What’s wrong with making a shopping list? You could write it on your smartphone if you insist on feeling all 21st-century about it.

Worse still, in theory, is the potential for a malicious outsider to gain access to your white goods without your knowledge. Clearly, I realise even as I’m typing this paragraph that such a notion may appear ridiculous: who would want to make my dishwasher start up at 2am, or persuade my “smart” cupboard to order 72 boxes of Corn Flakes? Most domestic appliances are unlikely to represent attractive targets for hackers or mischievous malcontents, even if I’d done something as an individual to annoy or upset them.

But the wider point, surely, is that the risk will soon exist, where at present, for those of us without computer-controlled curtains or programmable equipment to turn down our beds while we’re out, it does not. Industrial users are still struggling to come to terms with the vulnerabilities SCADA systems have introduced; allowing remote access to the fridge seems to bring the same set of problems into the home. And if those systems store your credit-card or bank-account data, they will actually become a target an intruder may feel it’s worth spending a bit of time trying to get into.

Technology security is all about balancing the level of risk you’re willing to accept against the gains you or your business will make from your use of the new device, software or functionality. Controlling your domestic appliances remotely with your phone seems, to me, to offer no real benefits, while opening up your home to intruders in ways they currently cannot access. It’s all risk, with no meaningful reward. Just ask those guinea pigs.

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