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Threatening Household Appliances

First designed to save work, household devices are going rogue.

Key points

  • The electrification of household appliances liberated domestic workers from hours of drudgery.
  • Contemporary engineers are producing devices so hard to control that it is often difficult to make them fulfill their basic functions.
  • Many electronic devices are hackable and may be used by cyber criminals, including seemingly innocuous devices like coffee makers.

Electric appliances used to be great liberators of people from the drudgery of housework. Now, they are morphing into hostile agents subject to the control of governments, hackers, criminals, and electronic engineers.

Your Smart TV Is Watching You!

The smart TV is an Internet device and, therefore, is as hackable as a phone or laptop. Most collect usage data that can be sold to marketers and other third parties. Smart TVs have microphones that can be used to listen in to private conversations, and their cameras may be used to spy on the owners.

A surprising range of electronic devices can be hacked and may be used by cyber criminals. These include seemingly innocuous devices such as coffee makers.

With the arrival of the Internet of Things, which arranges scores of censors throughout the house, a person's presence and activities in each room may be observed and recorded remotely. This is grist to the mill of every agent that would control and manipulate us in our homes.

Electric Appliances and Female Labor Participation

The electrification of household appliances liberated domestic workers from hours of drudgery. (Constant work is a legacy of the agricultural revolution and contrasts with the leisured existence of our hunter–gatherer ancestors.)

Washing clothes absorbed many hours of back-breaking work that involved repetitive stress. Similarly, the constant quest to find fresh food was eliminated by refrigeration and other food-handling techniques, including pasteurization of milk. These and other labor-saving devices facilitated the entry of large numbers of married women into the workforce.

Electric appliances were designed to minimize manual labor. As such, they gave people greater control over their lives, reducing time spent on repetitive chores. Yet, the intentions of appliance manufacturers have not always been benign.

One example is the design of control panels for stoves and washing machines. Writer Vance Packard claimed that, during the 1950s, engineers designed control panels that were unnecessarily complex. He believed that this was a marketing ploy. It gave bored homemakers a sense of mastery over their machines by making their operation closer to a car, an airplane, or even a spaceship. At this period, some women were active in technical occupations.

Contemporary rogue engineers are having a field day. They are producing devices so hard to control that it is often difficult to make them fulfill their basic functions.

Rogue Washing Machines

Appliances that refuse to operate are increasingly common. Indeed, many do not have simple on-and-off switches and need to be programmed correctly to work. In Europe, stove rings do not turn on with the simple flip of a switch. Instead, a finger must be held over the start button for three seconds. Then the user selects a ring and selects the heat setting using another button. These time-wasting contortions are justified as child-safety mechanisms on the shaky presumption that small children cannot master holding a switch for three seconds.

Rogue washing machines combine such “safety” features with a dense maze of programs. These have inscrutable features that require a user to set several parameters every time they do the laundry. Some of the programs have ostensibly environmentally friendly options such as a drying cycle that lasts more than four hours to conserve electricity, or an even more protracted cycle that makes use of electricity at low-demand times.

Combined washer–dryers have several features that seem designed to baffle and confuse. Upon completing the wash cycle, they may weigh the wet laundry. If it is above the weight threshold, they refuse to dry unless some of the laundry is removed.

When this happens, new users might assume the device is malfunctioning and call in a company technician, often for an exorbitant minimum fee. These fees may be the real reason that the devices are so difficult to operate.

Inscrutable Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are another domestic machine that is notoriously difficult to set correctly. Many have an opaque hierarchical menu of settings with unfamiliar coding where turning a function on is represented by “2” and off is “1.”

When setting a hot-water temperature, users see a menu where they may toggle between “Eco” and “Legionella.” This is not a bad joke. The Legionella setting makes the water in the system hot enough to kill Legionnaires' disease. In heating the water, it turns off the heating function so owners might imagine the heat pump was not working.

Since Legionnaires' disease is not a major problem in domestic water heaters (as opposed to industrial ones), this setting may be inserted to give more work to company technicians who charge unreasonable fees.

The days when household devices were our humble servants are long gone. Welcome to the brave new world of cyber warfare in the home appliance.


L. Rainie, M. Duggan. Privacy and Information Sharing. Pew Research Center.

Jerome E. Dobson. Big Brother has evolved. Nature.

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