Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Smart Toilet information – good or bad idea?

(First appeared in Consumer News Namibia Magazine May 2013)

Recently there was an article in an international publication about “smart toilets” being installed by municipal authorities of Toronto, Canada. The toilets were being installed at the city’s convention centre, the equivalent of our Windhoek Showgrounds. The purpose of installing the toilets is to allow them to analyse the data collected from the toilet.

When I heard about it, my first question had to be why? The second issue that came to mind is that there is no more privacy if I should use a public smart toilet.
(As I read further in the article, it turned out that the “smart toilets” was actually a publicity stunt.)
But let us look a little bit deeper at what the company was actually claiming to do. The fake company is called Quantified Toilets and they claimed to have installed sensors in the Toronto Convention centre and other public venues that would automatically analyse “deposits” in the toilets to detect a person’s gender, drug and alcohol levels, pregnancy status, sexually-transmitted infection status, and “the smell factor”.
The company (remember it is a fake business”), even put up signs in the bathrooms that read “Behavior at these toilets is being recorded for analysis.”
The company also created an accompanying website featured that featured a live stream of toilet data being collected in real time.

The idea of “smart toilets” is not actually a new idea. The IT company INTEL, has done a survey in the United States of America and found that “70% of people said they would be willing to share their smart toilet data if it led …. to lower medical costs”
The article however went on to explain why the idea of “smart toilets” is not a good idea. It was this part of the article that struck me most as a consumer activist.
What if the Government of Namibia (GRN) or a private company installs “smart toilets” and does not leave you with any option on whether your private information is collected or not. (In other words it is not your choice – there is no opt-out option.) Furthermore, it must be a worry that personal health data that is NOT being collected for use by a doctor. Imagine this was shared with an insurance company for example?
Let us look at some of the scenarios sketched in the article:
·         At a convention or concert, an organization could determine whether attendees have high rates of pregnant women with positive drug or alcohol tests, then use that knowledge to target public health messages to the demographic.
·         In stadiums, an organization could see which sections had higher blood alcohol levels, and even the peak levels during the game.  They could market more beer to that section—or make it harder for people in that section to buy drinks. They might even sell this data to beer vendors willing to pay for such demographic information.
·         Other ideas from the Quantified Toilets website: “We use this data to streamline cleaning crew schedules, inform municipalities of the usage of resources, and help buildings and cities plan for healthier and happier citizens.”
Now imagine your employer could get hold of this kind of data. The boss will be able to know which drugs you are taking, check to see if you show up at work drunk or even know which female employees are expecting babies.
As users of “smart phones” we already use a lot of applications to track our movements, pictures we take, where we eat meals, etc,. but there’s a serious line that must be drawn between the “quantified self movement”—in which people record as much personal metadata as possible—and public monitoring of our data. 
The author of the article ended his piece with the following paragraphs:
Sensors of all types are easily connected to the Internet. They can collect vast amounts of data, which can then be shared widely. As citizens, we don’t always know what data is being collected, who can access it, or how it will be used. Even seemingly secure networks can be comprised. 
We should be leading conversations about the legal privacy protections we need to establish for what once seemed to be private activities. In a data-rich connected world, even the most intimate spaces are becoming public.

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