Let's say you are out and about in a public space and nature calls, but when you reach the restroom you see a sign alerting you that the smart toilets will analyze your biological waste. Would you be cool with that or would you try to hold it until you reach a different building that contained toilets without surveillance capabilities?
Visitors to restrooms at the Toronto Convention Center had to make that choice after seeing the following sign:
If you visited the Quantified Toilets website, you'd see:
We are proud to be a part of Toronto's Healthy Building Initiative, and are excited to deploy a preliminary infrastructure throughout the city's major civic structures. Along with our partners, we leverage big data collected from the everyday activity of buildings and their occupants. Admittedly not the sexiest of data sources, we analyze the biological waste process of buildings to make better spaces and happier people. 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.
Under that was a rolling "live feed" of anonymized and analyzed toilet contents:
It was later announced that this was a hoax, a "thought experiment" regarding privacy "brought to you through the Critical Making Hackathon" during CHI2014 (ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing). But the idea behind "smart toilets" capable of surveillance piqued the interest of Dr. Jennifer Golbeck; she is a privacy researcher as well as the director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. She wrote about what the publicity stunt tells us about the future of surveillance. "If the government installs smart toilets in public venues, the option to opt out isn't necessarily available."
If sensors were to be as easily deployed as the website suggests, they could be used in not-so-anonymous settings like offices. Your employer could find out which drugs employees are taking, check to see if anyone shows up to work drunk, and figure out which female employees are expecting babies.
Golbeck also pointed toward a survey conducted last year that found "70% of people would be willing to have a smart toilet share their personal data if it would mean lower healthcare costs." 70% from eight countries seems really high, but other study results included, "75% would be comfortable giving up information gathered by a health monitor they could swallow, even though that's far more intrusive than a toilet that tweets that you've had enchiladas three nights running."
Today I was wondering if perhaps the toilet monitoring hoax was hacked by another party conducting a social experiment regarding privacy, or if the original pranksters are still playing? Along with the photo below, Karen Tanenbaum tweeted, "Woah, did our hack just get hacked? New phase of @QToilets deployed, but not by the original workshop team?"
It states, in part, that the short term study:
revealed preliminary data on the additional burden tourism presents to the local water treatment infrastructure. Significant levels of artificial hormone therapies common to birth control medications, serotonin uptake agents and alcohol were identified in addition to 42 varieties of level 1 controlled substance.
It remains to be seen who precisely is responsible for the newest twist, but it seems likely that it's part of the Critical Making Hackathon: Situated Hacking, Surveillance and Big Data, which "explores the notion of surveillance and counter-surveillance through discussion and hands-on oppositional hacking." People participating in the hackaton were divided into teams and given a kit, which contained components like tiny microcontrollers, tiny programmers, IR LEDs and IR detectors.
What comes out of the hackthon is supposed to raise "questions around consent and privileged access to information." Smart toilets analyzing the public's biological waste and sharing the health results certainly do that, as the need to go to the restroom in public doesn't seem to imply consent or grant access to such information.
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