Bipartisan bill will force manufacturers to disclose if ‘smart’ household appliances can spy on you

Months ago back in November of last year, Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, teamed up with Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, to introduce a new bill concerning “smart” appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers.

Called the “Informing Consumers about Smart Devices Act,” the bill “would require the FTC to create reasonable disclosure guidelines for products that have audio or visual recording components, such as refrigerators, washers, dryers and dishwashers that are not clearly obvious,” according to a press release from Cruz’s office.

In other words, if a fridge a consumer is about to buy has the ability to record them, the company selling the fridge would be required to ensure the consumer knows.

“American consumers should be aware when their appliances and everyday tech products have the capability to record them through microphones and cameras – let alone the ability to transmit through Wi-Fi. I’m proud to help author this bipartisan solution to help safeguard the privacy and security of American homes,” Cruz said in a statement at the time.

“It’s estimated that by 2026, over 84 million households will have smart devices – providing connection and control over everything from your air conditioning to your air fryer,” Cantwell added.

“Yet, most consumers expect their refrigerators to keep the milk cold, not record their most personal and private family discussions. I’m happy to work with Senator Cruz on a bill that will ensure consumers know whether their household appliances are capable of invading their privacy,” she continued.

In February, the House passed the bill. Now fast-forward to Wednesday, when the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee passed it as well. It’s now slated to go up for a full Senate vote, after which it’ll presumably be signed into law by President Joe Biden.

So how big of an issue is this? Well, numerous reports have been written about the phenomenon of smart devices listening in on their owners.

One report published in 2020 by Consumer Reports unveiled a Northeastern University study that found that “smart speakers are often fooled into recording when they hear words other than the wake words created to summon Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana.”

“In fact, these errors can occur once an hour. The device usually stopped recording within seconds, though. And, when prompted with the same dialogue yet again, it often didn’t repeat the mistake,” according to Consumer Reports.

FYI, smart devices, appliances, speakers, etc., are programmed to only “turn on” when they hear a certain word like “Alexa” or “Siri.”

“This validates what a lot of us are seeing anecdotally—that these devices wake up all the time when they shouldn’t, which can potentially constitute a privacy risk,” study author David Choffnes of Northeastern University said.

But not everybody thinks it’s a big deal. Take Justin Brookman, the director of privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports.

“Digital assistants are an imperfect technology—it’s not surprising that they’re going to inadvertently capture data they’re not supposed to,” he said.

“When we bring these devices into our houses, this is the risk we take, that they’re going to be accidentally activated and record the things we say. If the activation is inadvertent, it’s probably not that helpful to the companies, but there’s no telling how they’re using it to better understand us,” he added.

So is there anything that can be done about listening devices? Sure, says “tech expert” Jaime Vazquez.

Speaking with Denver station KDVR last year, he said, “They all have controls that let you set availability schedules. For example, you can set the Echo Kid’s Edition to stop listening to commands after a specific time of day.”

“If you know someone named Alex or Alexa, it may be worth updating the wake word on your Echo devices. If you really want to take control of your devices, you might consider plugging them into smart plugs so you can easily turn them off when you aren’t using them,” he added.

The point is that there are steps smart device owners can take to ensure that their devices aren’t listening in on them when they shouldn’t be. Like, for instance, unplugging the devices when they’re not using them, putting the devices in the room where they won’t overhear private conversations, and of course, adjusting the devices’ settings.


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Vivek Saxena


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