An IoT story

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A couple years ago, I had to have a difficult conversation with someone, all because of an Internet of Things device.

But first, let me back up.

Soon after the advent of WiFi-connected bathroom scales, I bought one. It was a little tricky to setup, but once it was on my network, it dutifully uploaded my morning weight to the cloud. I’ve used it for years to track my moving-average weight and keep tabs on my health. It continues to function and has worked flawlessly for nearly a decade. Batteries last over a year between changes!

The company I bought it from was eventually acquired by Nokia, and their old Flash graphs of all my data stopped working and their API disappeared and then one day I was forced to download a new Nokia health iPhone app especially for it.

The app had a new UI and once I got my bearings, I noticed a tab with a red notification, marked “unknown” with over 100 data points over the course of several years. As a bit of background: the scale works by guessing who is who based on differing weights, and lets you name those people and the people in my house all had different weights when I bought it, making it easy to track us.

But there was an unknown person.

The unknown tab was interesting since the data started at a different number than any of us and then steadily fell. A lot. And there was years of data. At first, I thought it had to be data from another account on Nokia’s servers leaking into my profile. Who else lives in my house and could do this for years? I logged into the website to double check the logs.

I couldn’t think of anyone it could be. After a couple days of thinking it over, I finally noticed an obvious pattern in the data. It was only one recording a week, for years. Always around noon. Always on the same day.

Oh shit. I know who it was. It was our housecleaner.

When my spouse was pregnant with our first child, she wanted to play it safe and stay away from harsh cleaning chemicals, so we asked our neighbors and ended up hiring their house cleaner to scrub our bathrooms and spruce up our bedrooms once a week. It was a nice lifestyle splurge to pay for this service and it took a few chores off both our plates. Our housecleaner is a really nice person, and we talk regularly about how each of our families are doing, but usually we share small talk for a couple minutes before we both go back to our own work.

It’s totally natural that she jumped on the bathroom scale when cleaning the room to note her weight to herself, and there was no way for her to know it was connected wirelessly to the internet sharing her data on my account. I hated that I had years of her data without her knowledge.

I dreaded this entire situation, since it’s personal and invasive stuff. It reminds me of the time I got a house alarm installed, then promptly took off for a vacation and left the keys to a friend to house sit. When I got back, the alarm company’s iPhone app dutifully tracked every time my friend walked into and out of my house, along with recording when he went to sleep and when he woke up (he would enable it when asleep, turn it off when he woke up).

It’s extremely easy to take logs of seemingly innocuous data and paint an intrusive picture of someone’s personal life and habits, and it was no fun to have years of (very personal) data on someone without their knowledge. People are protective about their personal data and it’s natural to want to keep that stuff confidential. But my stupid bathroom scale and its stupid iPhone app removed any sense of privacy.

I promised myself that I’d tell her the next time I saw her. I wanted to apologize, explain how it happened, how it was a big accident, and that it was information I wished I didn’t have.

How do you even start this kind of conversation? I role-played different scenarios and mulled it over in my head for days.

The next week when our house cleaner arrived to clean our bathrooms, I took her aside and explained that my bathroom scale was connected to the internet and tracking everyone that steps on it. I learned through a software update that it was tracking her too for years, and I was deeply sorry for that.

To my surprise, she was kind of impressed a bathroom scale could even do that, and was fine that I saw her data. She had lost weight in a long-term program that forced her to share her weight every week with a public group, so it was par for the course.

It all worked out in the end, but I’ll never forget how much I dreaded having that conversation.