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Hardware / Security / Tech Culture

Troubling Tech Trends: The Dark Side of CES 2024

Critics say the latest batch of new gadgets at CES 2024 will invade our privacy, steal our personal data and fill up landfills as soon as they break.
Jan 21st, 2024 6:00am by
Featued image for: Troubling Tech Trends: The Dark Side of CES 2024
Feature image: Cory Doctorow Presenting his ‘Worst-in-Show’ award for CES 2024.

Is there something more to be learned from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the massive annual trade show held earlier this month in Las Vegas?

After all, the show is basically product manufacturers “hoping to convince us that they have invented the future,” argues Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability at iFixit, a right-to-repair advocacy group.

But if we’re really seeing the future, “will their vision make our lives better, or lead humanity down a dark and twisted path?”

To explore that question, iFixit assembled a panel of “dystopia experts” to dissect some instructive bad examples — “products that jeopardize our safety, encourage wasteful overconsumption and normalize privacy violations.” And the official website for their “Worst In Show” awards promises that they’re calling out “the most troubling trends in tech.”

Those trends are clearly represented by the award categories, and when surveying this paradise of new consumer electronics the judges’ concern was the stances being taken toward those consumers. “Our judges have selected from hundreds of candidates,” explained Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, in a video of this year’s ceremony shared with over one million subscribers on iFixit’s YouTube channel.

So what are the troubling tech trends that came to the surface?

‘Who Asked for This?’

First up for this rogue’s gallery was the winner of the inglorious “Who Asked for This?” award.

Nathan Proctor, senior director of Public Interest Research Group‘s right-to-repair campaign (PIRG is a consumer advocacy firm), bestowed this honor on a shopping cart with a screen mounted on its handle so ads could be beamed directly to shoppers, at all times. “Make Shopping Magic,” promises the original video for the product, which also shows sensors in the cart identifying every single product being purchased.

There’s even additional weight sensors to estimate just how much produce you’ve purchased.

In exchange for this information — and for your attention — you’ll be given recommendations for recipes, plus a map of the store telling you where the ingredients are located. But in the end, the product is combining its attention-stealing screens with an insatiable hunger for your shopping data, Proctor argues in the video. “I think Caper Cart is honestly a pretty great name, because this thing is a heist.”

To be fair, judging by the video, it does seem to keep a useful running tally of how much you owe, which could eliminate the need for waiting in checkout lines. But Proctor seemed especially disturbed by the extensive dossiers being compiled about each person’s ongoing shopping habits.

No matter which Instacart shopping cart you choose, it will now even remember your past shopping behaviors. “A shopping cart that scans everything I buy and pushes me to pick preselected brands? Who asked for that?!”

But this represents a “troubling trend in tech” since, according to a January 8 Instacart press release, thousands of these carts will be “deployed” by the end of this year.

Creepy Tracking and Bad Security

The “Worst in Show for Privacy” award went to two top brands. EFF executive director Cindy Cohn presented the award to Amazon’s Alexa for their partnership with BMW “to extend creepy tracking, and with it the potential for domestic abuse, to our cars.”

Cohn started by citing a September report from Mozilla that found that every one of the 25 car brands they’d researched failed to meet their minimum standards for basic security and privacy of collected data. But to this general lack of privacy, Cohn added a dramatic example:

“Imagine your ex doing this from the car: ‘Alexa, unlock the front door.'”

After illustrating the problem, Cohn pointed out that there’s a surprisingly simple fix. “Alexa and BMW and frankly all of the car companies who are racing to turn our cars into tracking devices need to ensure that victims can turn this off.

“Until they do, the worst in show award goes to Amazon and BMW.”

And a robot vacuum cleaner with an “extended main brush” that twitches continually like an antenna was the surprise winner for “Worst in Show for Cybersecurity.” Paul Roberts, founder of the right-to-repair advocacy group Secure Repairs, described the new X2 Combo smart vacuum from Ecovacs as “an autonomous, mobile, in-home surveillance device equipped with cameras, microphones, LIDAR, voice-recognition features and AI models used for object identification.”

“A device harvesting that amount of sensitive personal data from your home better be using top-shelf security, right? Wrong.”

Roberts pointed to security probes by researchers Dennis Giese and Braelynn Luedtke, summarizing their troubling findings. “User data collected by the vacuum, possibly including images, is stored in unencrypted form on the device.” (The company’s website says users can opt out of the collection of images and videos — and when videos, photos and personal information are stored on Ecovacs’s servers, users can request their deletion.)

But there’re numerous other concerns. A post at iFixit adds that “researchers also found that the Ecovacs factory reset feature does not fully erase all information from the device.” Roberts even complains that mobile app protections for access to a live video feed on the robot vacuum “can be easily bypassed.”

Roberts’s conclusion? “As the research on the Deebot X1 suggests, a sober security reality lurks beneath the glitz, glamor and shiny exteriors of devices at CES.” It includes poorly designed and insecure application code, deployment of lax security practices, and blurry lines around the collection, storage and retention of user data.”

Superfluous and Short-Lived

Reporting from Las Vegas, Consumer Reports consultant Stacey Higginbotham recognized a stand-out worst product for environmental impact — a strange new device called the ‘Macrowave,’ which Revolution Cooking hopes will replace both your oven and microwave with “infrared cooking.”

Besides the possibility that it just ends up being another superfluous gadget that you toss in a few years, Higginbotham criticized the food cooker’s “crazy excessive” amount of electronics. (It even connects to the internet.)

 Stacey Higginbotham at CES 2024 - presenting Worst in Show award (screenshot from video)

Waste was also a big concern when iFixit’s chief executive and co-founder, Kyle Wiens, presented the “Worst in Show for Repairability” award to the Momentum 4 Wireless earphones, which he said had the same problem as the product’s three preceding versions.

The $379 headsets use three different batteries, all of them integrated so deeply into the product that they can’t be replaced. The post at iFixit points out that “internet forums are replete with people complaining that the company won’t repair them.”

“This product is disposable,” Wiens says in the video, “so two years after you shell out $300, you’re going to have to go and buy another set.”

“This is ludicrous. We should not have such a short-lived product that can’t be serviced. It’s not right for consumers, and it’s not right for the planet.”

Plastered with Logos

In a kind of grand finale, EFF activist and science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow called out BMW’s augmented reality heads-up display as the worst example of a company making things worse for their users and business partners — but better for themselves.

A video shows the XREAL Air 2 providing directions by overlaying green cartoon arrows onto the real-world road — and also adding more cartoon icons for things like roadwork or the availability of charging stations.

Doctorow’s concern? “Dollars to Deutsche marks, they’re going to fill your screen up with fast-food ads, and then charge mom-and-pop shops double the price to have their own store show up in your field of vision and not be plastered over with the logos for multinational corporations.” (The Associated Press quotes one “Worst of Show” judge calling the overlays a “recipe for distracted driving.”)

The video ends with Gordon-Byrne, of the Repair Association, giving viewers in the United States a way to take action themselves. With 45 state legislatures considering right-to-repair laws, there’s a handy interactive map of the country to help viewers get in touch with their local legislators.

And to drive the point home, they also referred viewers to an online petition directed at America’s Federal Trade Commission that urges a return to repairability.

“People just want to fix their stuff!”

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