Smart bathroom technology and the implications on privacy
14th September 2017
We accept the inexorable march of technology when it creeps into everyday conveniences, even if it often makes them less convenient. A fridge that tells you when you’ve run out of milk may not actually be more efficient than just looking in the fridge, but it sounds cool and science fictiony. And when every product on the market contains these features, you end up having to go with the flow. Try finding a new TV that doesn’t have some ‘smart’ functionality built in.
Sometimes these features represent genuine improvements, but just as often they go the way of the 3D TV or the tea caddy: a ‘must have’ new fad that turns out to be less than effective, or just doesn’t strike a chord with consumers. More cynically, you can argue that marquee features of this sort are designed less for functionality and more to make you buy another appliance.
But what happens when these features escape the confines of consumer electronics, and make their way into the bathroom? Are we just as willing to buy a new toilet if it hooks up to an app on our smartphones? And given that most people seem unconcerned about the privacy implications of other ‘smart’ products, will smart toilets and other fixtures be any different?
To look at its marketing, the ‘smart home’ is the AI driven wonderland of the future. Products like Philips Hue, Nest and Google Home promise to automate everything from heating to CCTV to baby monitors, with every facet of home management available at the touch of a button, or even a voice command.
Arrive home and the door will open as it recognises your face; the lights and appliances will turn back on, and the kettle will have just finished boiling. Your grocery shopping arrives 10 minutes later, ordered by your empty fridge, and a recipe will have popped up on your worktop suggesting a meal based on the ingredients. What’s not to love?
All of these products already exist, either on the consumer market or as tech demonstrations by eager startups, and they’re already working their way into thousands of homes. Many of us are now familiar with virtual assistants like Amazon Echo, using them to queue up music, or ask for the weather before we step out of the door. Few of us worry about those assistants listening to everything we say, and sending that data for further analysis.
We may have nothing more to worry about than slightly more effective and omnipresent adverts. But we shouldn’t mistake the advent of smart appliances as being purely altruistic, either. As well as creating a desirable new product to buy, connecting previously ‘dumb’ appliances to the internet means they are generating data. And whether it’s how many cups of tea we make a day, what music we listen to or when we leave the house, that data is valuable to somebody.
Smart toilets already exist – in fact, they’re not a particularly new idea. Japan has been (somewhat famously) at the forefront of toilet tech for decades, with fountains, bidets and all sorts of optional comforts. With the smart home gaining traction, both Japanese and Western companies are finding success with their own proprietary tech. Whether it’s controlled via app or a loo roll holding control panel, the smart toilet is coming to a home near you soon.
It’s easy to think that this will be a long overdue luxury. Why not indulge in a warm seat, a programmable bidet and built in Bluetooth speakers? Some manufacturers have even pre-empted privacy concerns. German manufacturer Grohe’s smart toilet uses a Bluetooth app rather than wifi, meaning there’s no chance of your toilet being hacked and used inappropriately. Better yet, there are smart toilets that can clean themselves, a much-requested feature in our homes of the future. What’s not to like?
At present, the smart bathroom that maintains itself and stores our preferences is a thing to behold. And it’s not a pipe dream, either: the technology is currently expensive, but not inaccessible, and the cost is likely to fall over time. But if we let sensors into our bathroom, have we crossed a particularly icky rubicon? Whatever we think their motivations are, connecting our toilet, taps or shower to the internet denies us one of the home’s last truly private spaces.
Risk and reward
It’s easy to sound conspiratorial and luddite when it comes to technology, particularly when it comes to privacy. But it’s also important to bear these things in mind, and look before we leap. Great discoveries have often been rushed into without considering the implications for humanity; lead was a miracle additive to petrol, and radium was something you lit up your house with. When it comes to privacy, we ought to be careful and considerate of what we’re losing as well as what we’re gaining, and weigh the risks.
There are great innovations to be made in bathroom technology, and some of them stand to reason. Finding better ways of cleaning and maintaining public toilets, a more efficient flush, making bathrooms more accessible to the elderly and disabled, and yes, even a warmer seat. Networked bathrooms don’t have to be a bad thing either. Look to India, where public toilets offer wifi and other services, and are plugged into Google Maps for easy location. There are sensible technological solutions to age old problems that are yet to be explored, and we shouldn’t impede their progress.
When it comes to ideas like Google’s patent for bathroom health monitoring however, there seems to be some reason to be wary. An ultrasound bath and a health monitoring toilet aren’t necessarily bad things either, if they expedite a process of willing diagnosis. But these kinds of ‘always online’ devices are always at risk of being triggered remotely, and their data can end up being lost or stolen, despite the precautions of the business involved. This is especially true with bathroom fixtures that stay in place for many years, often beyond the cycle of software updates.
Many of these features, such as efficient flushing and heated seats, could be added without having to connect your loo to the internet. The commercial impetus, however, is to collect usage data. As a room largely without electronics, the bathroom has the most potential for revolutionary change. As a private space that’s linked inextricably to our personal health, though, it also has the strongest risk of breaches of privacy. Giving digital businesses unfettered access to our toilets may be an idea that’s best flushed away.