What a Toilet Hoax Can Tell Us About the Future of SurveillanceA made-up toilet company raises legitimate questions about government data-tracking.
I wasn’t actually surprised to learn that public officials in Toronto had agreed to install “smart toilets” in the city’s convention center so they could analyze public, um, data. As a privacy researcher, the idea fascinated me.
Only problem: It wasn’t true.
But a fake toilet company’s publicity stunt has me thinking, which is whatQuantified Toilets intended. Smart toilets are just the kind of product you expect to encounter at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing, or CHI, an annual event where researchers discuss the latest science of how people interact with technology. This is my favorite conference to attend. There are always new and cool projects that make me think.
So when Quantified Toilets debuted at CHI this week, it was an immediate hit. The company claimed to have installed sensors in the Toronto Convention Center and other civic venues that would automatically analyze “deposits” in the toilets to detect a person’s gender, drug and alcohol levels, pregnancy status, sexually-transmitted-infection status, and… smell.
There were signs in the bathrooms that read: “Behavior at these toilets is being recorded for analysis.”
The accompanying website featured a live stream (ha) of toilet data being collected in real time.
The idea isn’t as absurd as it may sound, especially to a cohort of conference attendees who spend their days thinking about these sorts of technologies. “Smart toilets” have been around for a while, and in a survey by Intel and market researcher Penn Schoen Berland, 70% of people said they would be willing to share their smart toilet data if it led to lower healthcare costs.
But this was different. And it’s worth exploring why…