Smart Appliances Promise Convenience and Innovation. But Is Your Privacy Worth the Price?

Manufacturers collect data every time you run your dryer and open your refrigerator, but most of them don’t want to talk about it.

When you buy a home appliance, you expect certain things. A refrigerator to keep food cold. A washer to get your clothes clean. A dryer to dry those clothes.

But many new refrigerators will ping your smartphone if you’ve left the door open. Your new washer could order more detergent when you start to run low. And your new dryer could nag your partner for you when a load is done. Thanks to the Internet of Things, large appliances are evolving in ways that fundamentally alter their functionality and the way we interact with them, changing our expectations in the process.

We may be wowed by the ability to see what’s in our refrigerator while we’re at the grocery store (yes, some models do that), but what really separates smart appliances from their predecessors is the data they collect about you—from your home address to your most used washer cycles, to when and how often you open your refrigerator doors.

To examine the potential impact of connected appliances, both good and bad, Consumer Reports conducted data privacy and data security tests on a selection of large appliances from some of the biggest appliance brands sold in the U.S., including GE, LG, Maytag (owned by Whirlpool), Samsung, and Whirlpool. These tests included monitoring network traffic (to see how “chatty” the appliances are with their manufacturers); an analysis of privacy policies and terms of service, including how and with whom data is shared; evaluations of digital security practices, including the use of authentication and encryption; and the response to vulnerabilities. We reached out to all five brands, as well as Kenmore, to ask about their connected appliances, but GE Appliances was the only one that agreed to speak with us. The rest responded to some questions via email but declined to speak further.

In addition, Consumer Reports conducted nationally representative surveys about smart appliance ownership in 2021 and 2022, as well as a diary study, in which we asked consumers who own connected appliances to share their experiences through a series of activities carried out over seven days. We also interviewed additional consumers about their experiences with owning connected appliances. Here’s what we found.

The Promise of Connected Appliances

According to the nationally representative survey of 2,084 U.S. adults (PDF) conducted by Consumer Reports in October 2022, 21 percent of Americans owned at least one of the types of large smart appliances we asked about: washing machines, clothes dryers, refrigerators, ranges or cooktops, built-in microwaves, dishwashers, and wall ovens. To understand the impact connected appliances can have on consumers, we interviewed a few who’ve embraced them—and don’t plan on going back.

“The thing that I like the most is the ability to get notifications on my phone or my TV about the status of a device,” said Todd Hanke, who owns a suite of Samsung smart kitchen and laundry appliances. His washer and dryer are in his garage, and he knows when a cycle is done via a notification on his TV, phone, or connected speakers. That convenience alone is enough to persuade him to buy connected appliances in the future, he said.

“Do I really need to know when the dishwasher is done?” said Billy Crackel, who also owns a suite of Samsung smart kitchen appliances. “Well, I didn’t think I needed remote start on a car, but now that I have it, not having it is kind of a hassle.”

While Hanke values the convenience of smart appliances and Crackel speaks about how novelties quickly become necessities, our research, testing, and reporting have found that the impact of connected appliances is both good and bad for consumers. The positive aspects include more efficient service calls and improved functionality, including enhancements over time thanks to software updates. But the negative could include shorter appliance lifespans and impositions on user privacy that come with continuous data collection. And those negatives could be harder to deal with if connected appliances become more popular in the years to come.

Here are several key areas where the benefits of connected appliances are on full display:

New Features Added Years After Purchase

One of the key benefits of any connected product, including a smart appliance, is that it can receive new features through software updates several years into ownership. For example, GE Appliances added new air fry and turkey modes to some of its existing smart ovens via a software update in 2021, including some models sold four to five years earlier. The company followed up with a steakhouse mode in June 2022. Last year Whirlpool played catch-up and added its own air fry mode to its existing smart ovens.

Smart refrigerators can get smarter, too. In 2021 Samsung added the Amazon Alexa digital assistant to its second-generation and newer Family Hub smart fridges, eliminating the need for a stand-alone smart speaker in your kitchen.

Changing Functionality Over Time

If you have young children and just installed a new washing machine, you can probably imagine needing different modes over the 10-year life cycle of the machine. John Ouseph, executive director of software and smart home solutions for GE Appliances, says that at first you may want a cycle that’s “heavy on sanitization, that’s heavy on delicates, that is specific for your family at that time.”

When your kids get older, you might want a sportswear mode or a dirt mode. “Your appliance can change as you change,” Ouseph says. “That’s kind of the vision.”

Better Repair Experience

It’s always an inconvenience when an appliance breaks down, but the connectivity provided by smart appliances could improve service calls and streamline the repair process.

For example, GE Appliances and Kenmore representatives can run remote diagnostics on their smart appliances before a service call. If they see a particular part that needs to be replaced, they can order it and have it on hand at the first visit, cutting down on the need for repeat visits.

Even if you’re not comfortable connecting your appliances to the internet, smart internet-connected appliances (and many “dumb” ones without internet connections) can store diagnostic data that service technicians can access during a visit. GE says its appliances have a special port for this purpose, allowing technicians to download the last five to 10 cycles worth of data. This won’t cut down on repeat visits, but it can make the process as quick as possible.

The Drawbacks of Connected Appliances

For all the benefits that smart appliances provide, there are still plenty of ways they could have an impact on your privacy or make your experience owning them worse. Here are some of the concerns they raise:

Constant Data Collection

According to our October 2022 nationally representative survey, Americans who don’t have smart appliances connected to the internet are more likely to say they’re worried about the digital security of these appliances (70 percent are at least somewhat worried) than about the privacy implications (64 percent are at least somewhat worried). The numbers are slightly lower, but still high, for Americans who do own connected smart large appliances: 55 percent and 47 percent, respectively. But based on our findings, you should be more concerned about manufacturers spying on you, not hackers.

In our tests, we monitored the internet traffic of 12 smart appliances across the five brands (GE, LG, Maytag, Samsung, and Whirlpool) and four appliance types (refrigerators, ranges, dishwashers, and washing machines) to see how chatty they were. We didn’t find any security vulnerabilities in these products, and all personal data was encrypted. But we did find that all of them were constantly collecting data and sending it back to the manufacturer.

How much data? Each appliance sent anywhere from 3.4MB to 19MB of data back to the manufacturers per week. That might not seem like much, but when you consider that it’s all text (not images, video, or audio), it equals 24,000 to over 135,000 text messages. We also used the appliances just once per day, far less than the average consumer. Under normal use, these appliances would likely send back even more data.

“As we all know, appliances can work completely fine without an internet connection,” says Steve Blair, who conducts privacy and security testing for CR. “Therefore, the majority of the data is likely just additional data collected by the manufacturers.” 

Because the data was encrypted, we couldn’t “see” what kind was being collected (a good thing in terms of data security). We asked the major brands, but most would only say they collect usage and performance data. Kenmore, however, gave us a detailed rundown: Its appliances collect data on a number of attributes, such as power status (on/off), door open/close, filter status, cycle details, temperature information, and energy usage.

LG and Samsung go further, collecting your ZIP code, phone numbers, date of birth, geolocation, and more through an appliance’s smartphone app. “LG and Samsung definitely collect more personal information than other manufacturers,” Blair says. “ZIP codes, phone numbers, date of birth, geolocation, and more are obviously not relevant to the product performance and service. That’s why we feel they have data collection practices that could be harmful to consumers.”

These apps can also contain third-party trackers, which collect additional data from your phone that manufacturers may use to troubleshoot problems, inform future product development, serve ads, or even sell to third parties. For example, the LG ThinQ app has 10 third-party trackers built into it. Blair says that in his experience, 10 trackers are on the high side among mobile apps.

Most manufacturers claim that all of this data is being collected to improve their products, but our findings show that at least some are using it to create data profiles about their consumers. Again, LG and Samsung go a step further and acquire data about their customers from third-party sources that they use to enhance these profiles. Samsung explicitly states in its privacy policy that it sells its customers’ data. It was the only company in our tests to do so.

John I. Taylor, senior vice president for LG Electronics, says each data point the company collects serves a purpose, such as finding the closest customer service center using ZIP codes and geolocation data, or verifying that a user is over the age of 16 using the date of birth. As for the third-party trackers, Taylor says only five are actually used in the U.S., for practices such as analytics and creating user profiles. “Customer profiles are also used in an aggregated manner to provide insights on consumer trends” and are “analyzed to determine customer interests and preferences,” he says.

“Samsung takes customer privacy very seriously, and we design our products with privacy and security top of mind,” says Khang Nguyen, vice president of engineering for Samsung SmartThings (the company’s smart home platform) via email. “SmartThings collects some user data to optimize the user experience, always informing the user of our privacy practices or requesting permission prior to initiating any collection.”

Samsung also addressed the portion of its policy that suggests it sells data in certain situations. Nguyen says that language comes from the California-specific portion of their privacy policy that’s meant to comply with the state’s consumer privacy law, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). It defines “sell” much more broadly as “selling, renting, releasing, disclosing, disseminating, making available, transferring, or otherwise communicating orally, in writing, or by electronic or other means, a consumer’s personal information by the business to a third party for monetary or other valuable consideration.”

“Because CCPA defines these terms [sale/sell/etc.] so broadly, certain mobile advertisement transactions by our Samsung Ads business could be considered a ‘sale’ under this definition,” Nguyen says.

In short, we don’t know for certain if Samsung actually sells user data.

“This is one major downside of the Internet of Things; it creates a lot more opportunities for potential privacy abuses,” says Justin Brookman, CR’s director of technology policy. “In many cases, the data collection may be benign or even beneficial. But pretty much all of the time the data collection is invisible, and consumers have no idea what’s being collected, why, or with whom it’s being shared.”

Loss of Functionality Without Connectivity

Certain GE smart ovens and ranges require a WiFi connection in order to use certain features, such as the convection roast mode. This is even the case on certain models that have a physical convection roast button, even though convection predates the invention of WiFi by decades.

The company says it made that requirement as a way to encourage consumers to connect their appliances and change their expectations of how appliances should work. But the move drew the ire of dozens of consumers on social media after a man tweeted about his $3,600 wall oven forcing him to connect in order to use the convection roast mode.

Potential for Fewer Third-Party Repair Choices

While connectivity can streamline the repair process for a manufacturer’s own repair technicians, it remains to be seen if the diagnostic tools for smart appliances will be available to independent repair shops.

“More complex appliances could make them harder to maintain and fix,” Brookman says. “This is especially the case for independent repair shops if the manufacturer doesn’t make available the relevant parts and diagnostic data. So you might be stuck paying higher prices to a manufacturer who has frozen out its competitors.”

We asked GE and Samsung if they offer their diagnostic tools to third-party repair services. A GE spokesperson said, “These tools are available to both authorized and nonauthorized third-party appliance technicians through SmartHQ Service software subscriptions and purchase of a SmartHQ module.” Samsung declined to comment.

Appliance Lifespan and Software Support

According to the appliance repair service Mr. Appliance, large appliances have an average life expectancy of eight to 19 years depending on the type and its power source (electricity or gas). Contrast that with many connected devices, such as computers and tablets, which consumers replace every five to six years, per Statista survey data. Because smart appliances are both appliances and connected devices, you might be wondering if they’ll last the same amount of time as their nonconnected predecessors.

That depends on two key questions. The first is whether the increased complexity of connected appliances will cause them to have shorter lifespans due to a breakdown or failure.

“If a product employs more sensors when it is WiFi enabled, then there are more things that can break and thus the possibility of a shorter lifespan,” says Jim Nanni, who has been testing appliances at Consumer Reports for over 30 years. “And at some point, the repair is going to be enough that somebody will say, ‘I don’t want to fix this anymore. I want to replace it.’ ”

The second question: How long will manufacturers support their smart appliances? We asked each of the major brands. Samsung declined to answer, while the other brands didn’t provide clear answers. The clearest answer came from GE Appliances, which said it supports connected appliances for 10 years and hopes to extend that commitment. The next best answer was from Kenmore, which said it will support them “through the expected lifetime of these types of appliances,” but didn’t define “lifetime.”

Despite not providing a clear time frame for support, LG and Whirlpool (as well as GE and Kenmore) said they will provide software updates and security patches for their appliances. Software updates are good for bug fixes and new features, but security patches are critical to protect against hacking.

Current practices also suggest that the appliance brand you choose will matter when it comes to receiving new software features throughout the appliance’s lifespan. While GE added an air fry mode for ovens that were purchased four to five years ago, the Alexa functionality Samsung added to its smart fridges in 2021 didn’t apply to its original 2016 Family Hub smart refrigerator, a refrigerator that was just five years old at the time.

Of course, it’s possible that some appliance manufacturers will differentiate themselves by how often they release software features for older appliances. Consumers could then use their purchasing power to show manufacturers that they want continued updates.

Should You Connect Your Appliances to the Internet?

Many of the issues we’ve highlighted might give you pause about connecting your appliances to the internet. But a user-experience study conducted by Consumer Reports in June 2020 found that once consumers have used the connected features of their appliances, they generally don’t want to go back to nonconnected appliances.

In the future, it’s likely you won’t have a choice between connected and nonconnected appliances. According to the market research firm Gap Intelligence, smart appliances made up 38 percent of models offered at retail as of August 2022, up from 21 percent in August 2019. GE Appliances says it offers over 650 connected appliances across its six brands, and over 1,000 appliances can be optionally connected to WiFi with the plug-in GE Connect Module ($50). LG says about 85 percent of its new appliance models offer connectivity. And a Samsung spokesperson simply said, “The majority of our devices are IoT-enabled.”

Take a stroll through your local Home Depot and you might find a number of connected washers, fridges, ovens, and more. But at a glance, it’s hard to tell which are smart and which aren’t. You either have to scan their control panels for tiny WiFi buttons or look for a small bar code or product label that notes they’re connected.

Of course, you can buy smart appliances and use them without connecting them to the internet. According to our October 2022 nationally representative survey of 2,084 adults, 12 percent of Americans own at least one large smart appliance and said none of those appliances were connected to the internet. Another 9 percent of Americans own at least one smart large appliance that’s connected to the internet. That’s a slight increase over our October 2021 nationally representative survey (PDF) of 2,036 US adults, which found that only 5 percent of Americans had a large smart appliance connected to the internet.

These numbers may look small, but it seems that enough consumers do connect these appliances to give brands useful data. As of January 2021, GE Appliances had about 1 million appliances connected to the internet. When we asked GE for an updated number, we were told that number is now considered proprietary information. But a company spokesperson did share that GE now has over 30 million “connectable” appliances in consumers’ homes.

But with only 21 percent of Americans owning at least one large smart appliance, according to CR’s nationally representative survey from 2022, it’s clear that it’s still early days for the smart appliance market, and much could change in the years ahead. Two such changes on the horizon are the Matter smart home standard and an interoperability effort by major appliance manufacturers through the Home Connectivity Alliance (HCA). Both efforts have similar—though not identical—goals of getting smart home devices from different brands to “talk” to each other, controlled by just one app or device.

The first version of the Matter standard supports a wide array of devices, but it doesn’t include large appliances yet. They will be included in the next iteration of the standard, which is expected to launch sometime this fall. Some of Matter’s many goals are to reduce the complexity of smart home products and spur consumer adoption, which could help smart appliances gain more mainstream appeal.

As for the Home Connectivity Alliance, it released a specification in January that will allow consumers to control existing smart appliances (as well as TVs and HVAC equipment) made by different brands in the same app. For example, you’ll be able to control an LG refrigerator, a GE oven, an Electrolux washer, and a Samsung dryer all from the Samsung SmartThings app or from any of those other manufacturer’s apps. The alliance expects its member companies to start releasing this functionality in their respective apps this year.

Consumer Reports is also getting involved in efforts to create more transparency around these connected devices. This July CR announced that it’s working with the Biden administration, the Carnegie Mellon CyLab Security and Privacy Institute, and other organizations to create a national labeling system, similar to nutrition labels, for connected products. These labels would clearly outline the types of data that devices collect and how companies keep your data secure, allowing consumers to be more aware of potential risks.

“If there’s a clear benefit, maybe the upside outweighs the risk, though there’s still risk. For a lot of devices, there’s really not a ton of functionality gained by connecting them to WiFi,” Brookman says. “For example, I personally wouldn’t want to connect a dishwasher to the internet. I just want it to wash the dishes that I just loaded in!”

Best Practices for Connecting Appliances to the Internet

If you want to connect your appliances to the internet, there are some things you can do to keep your data as safe and private as possible.

First, if your WiFi router supports creating a secondary or guest network, consider siloing your connected appliances (and other smart devices) on that network to separate them from your computer, smartphone, and other personal devices. If your network is ever breached through one of your appliances, hackers won’t be able to get at the far more valuable data on your personal devices. And the appliance manufacturers won’t be able to see what personal devices you own.

Second, once you’re done setting up your smart appliances, go into your smartphone’s privacy settings and change the appliance app’s location data sharing settings to “while using the app” or “never/don’t allow,” depending on whether you’re using an iPhone or Android phone. Some apps require you to share location data in order to fully set up the smart appliance.

Finally, if you’re an iPhone user, turn off the “Allow Tracking” option in the app’s privacy settings because it allows the manufacturer to track you across third-party apps and websites.

To read the full article, click here.