At some point in late 2014, several owners of a Samsung smart fridge could not log in and check their Google Calendars on the refrigerator’s internet-connected screen. The ensuing angry brouhaha is a glimpse of the shape of things to come, of the scary future where essential appliances depend on buggy software and updates that might never come.
One of those owners, Kris Spencer, complained about the issue in a Google product forum, where dozens of other owners quickly echoed these grievances. The thread steadily grew bigger and bigger, and now has 352 replies, mostly from angry customers pissed off that they can’t check their calendars before grabbing their milk cartons.
“We now have a pointless icon on our fridge and this app was main reason I bought fridge so wife and I could view each other's calanders [sic] at supper table,” a user called Jason Straub complained.
“I bought the fridge so my wife could keep up with my calendar.“
Another user, Cody Drew, had a similar gripe: “I bought the fridge so my wife could keep up with my calendar. I hope this gets fixed soon. That is a lot of wasted money if no one can use this anymore.”
This sometimes insane thread, where owners of almost perfectly functioning refrigerators (no one complained about the fridge’s internal temperature being too high, or food defrosting), is a perfect snapshot into the scary and bizarre world of the so-called internet of things, where all kinds of devices from home appliances to toys for children (and adults) are slowly, but seemingly unstoppably, getting connected to the internet. This is the future, where your fridge has apps, and can probably be hacked.
*wakes suddenly from a nightmare* did someone say something about updating my fridgeInternet of Shit December 10, 2015
After dozens of complaints, and god knows how many calls and emails to Samsung, the fridge owners figured out the issue was probably that Google had discontinued the calendar API earlier in the year, and Samsung failed to push a software update for the refrigerator.
Then, around March of this year, some fridge owners reported finally receiving an update, though some didn’t get it, much to their chagrin. But their patience, eventually, was rewarded.
“Just a few minutes ago I was standing in my kitchen and heard my refrigerator reboot. I turn around and sure enough, it has rebooted. I think to myself, could it be it is receiving an update? I wait for the WiFi to reconnect, and click on the calendar,” wrote Spencer, the original author of the thread. “Much to my surprise I can see JUNE and many more months! I am jumping up and down with excitement! I checked to see if the [software] Update screen shows anything new, but it still displays March 31, 2015 version 2.690. I don't care, the calendar is displayed once more and I am thrilled! [...] Oh happy day!”
A Samsung smart fridge (Image: Kars Alfrink/Flickr)
Spencer wasn’t alone in feeling ecstatic.
“Guess what? Having a romantic dinner with my wife. Went to refill my cocktail; jack and coke for those that are interested. Fridge says a software update is available,” Rob Hackbarth wrote. “Holy %#+^ [sic]. I'm nervous about executing it. Anybody else receive the update?”
In some ways, that connected future will be wonderful. We’ll be able to turn off the lights of our house by tapping on our smartphone screen, and have our fridges tell us if we need milk. But as traditional appliances start relying on software, they’ll also get software bugs. And those bugs might be exploited by hackers, unless the manufacturers fix them.
And therein lies the problem: a lot of these manufacturers we’ll have to rely on aren’t that good at taking care of security, nor providing timely patches. Just look at what happened with Android and the Stagefright bugs, which allowed hackers to break into millions of Android phones with just a multimedia message. When your software depends on a chain of developers from different companies, some of which might not have good security practices, as a consumer, you’re screwed.
As traditional appliances start relying on software, they’ll also get software bugs. And those bugs might be exploited by hackers.
And it’s not just about losing access to a calendar, which, despite all the complaints, it’s not that big of a deal. These devices offer a way in for hackers. A way into other data. In fact, security researchers found that a similar Samsung smart refrigerator had a vulnerability that allowed hackers to steal the fridge owner’s Google credentials.
Perhaps, we’re better off with less high-tech fridges, or as a commenter on the support thread said, “I probably should better get a cheap Android tablet and a few stripes of velcro.” But the Internet of Things is coming, whether we like it or not. So as consumers, we better push manufacturers to take security, and updates, seriously.