CES Worst in Show slams gummi gouging, money-wasting mugs, and other dubious kit
Technology has the potential to make life better. This isn't it.
As the 2023 Consumer Electronics Show winds down, it's once again time for the Worst in Show Awards, an enumeration of ill-conceived tech products as determined by various technology advocates.
The Worst in Show panelists each focused on different criteria – privacy, environmental impact, security, repairability, "Who asked for this?" and community choice – that reflected poorly on product makers. Panel moderator Kyle Wiens, co-founder of repair forum iFixit, said, the product selected "can't be just, you know, moderately bad. It has to be terribly, awfully bad."
And this year's CES vendors delivered.
For privacy failings, Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, flagged the Withings U-Scan pee reading smart toilet puck.
"Just 90 mm in diameter, this health lab sits within any toilet bowl," the company proclaims. "It provides an immediate snapshot of the body’s balance by monitoring and detecting a large variety of biomarkers found in urine while also offering actionable advice for health improvements."
As with previous years, Cohn said in a live streamed webcast, it's difficult to tell how products handle personal data from their ad copy. These companies don't disclose their business models, she said, so consumers don't know whether they will have any privacy.
"This product, which is going to analyze your urine and give you back some information about it, says nothing about what it's going to do with that data that is collected," said Cohn.
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Pointing to the US Supreme Court's 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision – which rather controversially found the US Constitution does not affirm the right to an abortion and overturned the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that allowed abortion as a privacy right under Fourteenth Amendment – Cohn said the ruling has opened the door in several states to tracking and prosecuting those seeking abortions.
"So it's beyond clueless for a company to advertise that it can help you track your menstrual cycles and other things that might be used, frankly, to prosecute you," said Cohn. "There are a lot of problematic tools products at CES this year, but this is one that can toss you in jail."
Or at least that's a possibility if the product is ever sold in the US. U-Scan is slated to be released initially in Europe in Q3 2023. A US launch will depend upon clearance by the US Food and Drug Administration.
And then there's the environment
In terms of environmental irresponsibility, Shanika Whitehurst, associate director of product sustainability, research and testing at Consumer Reports, singled out Displace TV, a wireless, battery-power flat television that's supposedly light enough (under 20 pounds, though no specific weight is provided) to affix to any wall or window without screws and a mounting bracket.
"So, it sounds pretty good until you get to 'how does it power itself?'" said Whitehurst. "This guy powers itself using four lithium-ion batteries." And, she said, you're probably going to get an extra set of four so you can use the TV while its other batteries are being recharged.
Whitehurst said lithium-ion batteries require rare earth metals that have to be mined – not the most environmentally sustainable of practices. Given that recharging the TV batteries will require a plug-in charger, she wondered why the TV couldn't simply have a power cord.
Wiens concurred, adding, "I don't understand why we have to add batteries to everything. I feel like the battery-ification of the world is an ongoing problem."
He then went on to savage the Ember Travel Mug2+, a smartphone-enabled, insulated coffee mug, for its lack of repairability.
"This product is so terrible," declared Wiens. "They made the first one, and they made the second one, and now this is kind of a third iteration, the two plus adds Find My iPhone support. This is a travel mug that costs not $10, not $20, not $100. This is a $200 mug, with electronics and a battery inside. It's designed to keep your coffee hot."
The problem with this, said Wiens, is you don't need an electronic device to keep your coffee hot because insulated, travel mugs without electronics already exist for a fraction of the price. What's more, he said, the battery is not replaceable – during a tear-down, a saw was required to cut the cup open to access the battery.
"iFixit's forums are full of people looking to replace the batteries on their $200 Ember mug," said Wiens.
"If you buy a $200 mug you'd expect it to last longer than a year or two. So people are looking for batteries and Ember has no strategy. They don't sell the batteries. They don't provide you with any input or anywhere to go. And if you email them for support asking for a new battery, they will give you a coupon on the new disposable electronic coffee mug. So this is the kind of product that should not exist, doesn't need to exist, and it's doing active harm to the world."
Not so smart
Roku's new line of smart TVs were flagged by Paul Roberts, founder, SecuRepairs, for security concerns. As these devices have not actually been released and tested, he acknowledged that he was not aware of any specific current vulnerabilities. Rather his concern is based on the company's past lack of communication about security incidents and the general shoddiness of smart TV software.
"Smart televisions are a problematic category when it comes to cybersecurity because they're basically surveillance devices and they're not created with security in mind," he explained.
With regard to Roku specifically, Roberts pointed to security researcher Llamasoft's Roku jailbreak code, which allows arbitrary file modification and privilege escalation. While Roku appears to have addressed this in RokuOS v10 (presently at v11.5), Roberts chided Roku for failing to have a bug reporting program and for its lack of public security engagement. He observed that Roku has just three public CVEs at the MITRE website, while Apple has more than 1,300 CVEs for its TV OS – and that's not because Roku's code is more secure than Apple's.
Roberts said while he had singled out Roku for security this year, the company is not alone and electronics makers of all sorts at CES could improve their security posture and practices.
Nathan Proctor, national campaign director for Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), presented the first "Who asked for this?" award to the Neutrogena SkinStacks gummi printer, which lets you order 3D printed, unappealingly named, gelatinous nutritional supplements based on photographic and Q&A input.
"We need to hold terrible ideas accountable, which is the spirit of this award," he said. "What kind of person, upon surveying the nutritional supplement market, thinks to themselves, 'This needs to be more of a racket. Why just sell vitamins when you could also add in proprietary refills and biometric data harvesting?'"
Neutrogena SkinStacks, he said, rely on a phone-based selfie – with no explanation of how captured face data leads into vitamin recommendations – and on answered questions to formulate a custom nutritional supplement regime that you can purchase for $50 a month.
"Now I know some of you are familiar with $50 Gummies," explained Proctor. "But instead of letting you escape the dread caused by late [stage] capitalism for a few hours, these gummies unfortunately have the opposite effect. They're just multivitamins. The impact of health supplements are unregulated and notoriously sketchy. So it takes a special kind of achievement for the SkinStacks to make a product that is so ridiculous that it stands out in a marketplace that is so notoriously scammy."
Finally, Zack Nelson, who runs JerryRigEverything on YouTube, presented the community choice award for Worst in Show, based on disparagement culled from polls on social media sites like Reddit and Twitter.
Nelson cited the JBL Tour Pro 2 wireless headphones, who said the community chose them because, at $250 dollars, they're not a product anyone asked for and because they're difficult to repair and recycle.
"Not only are there batteries in both earbuds but there are magnets, there're batteries in the case," he said. "And I think the kicker is the 1.5-inch touch LCD screen on the side, which is just one more thing that can break, adds cost, and people already have watches and phones that do the exact same thing." ®
Updated to add
After this story was filed, Withings contacted The Register to challenge Cindy Cohn's claims and said it U-Scan data will be subject to company data privacy policies.
"Implying the use of Withings U-Scan could potentially land a person in jail is preposterous and legally not the case," a company spokesperson said.