Big brother is watching. He’s watching all of us, including our president via “wire taps” (or “tapps”) put there by former President Barack Obama. He’s also watching us via our microwaves, if we’re to believe Trump senior counselor Kellyanne Conway.
Yes, our microwaves. Those clever little nuclear ovens that changed snacking culture back in the ‘70s and have since changed leftovers forever.
You probably already heard this, but if not (and also just because I want to type this out with a big grin on my face), Conway told the Bergen Record in an interview that we should be aware that our microwaves can, er, turn into cameras and watch us.
“There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phones, through their—certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways,” Conway said. “And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera. So we know that that is just a fact of modern life.”
There are plenty of devices that can listen to you. In fact, I wrote about this just last month. TVs, smart home devices like Amazon Dot and Echo, Google Home - they all listen to you. But to be clear, you invite them into your home.
Conway’s insinuation is that even our dumb appliances - those not expressly connected to the internet either for our entertainment or informational purposes - are bugging us, listening to us and in some cases, turning into cameras even when they’re just…microwave ovens. Maybe she was talking about the microwaves themselves, not the ovens? Sure, microwaves can be used to create image facsimiles, like radars can see - or hear - through structures using microwaves.
But let’s be clear: Microwaves emit waves, they don’t receive them.
Vice reached out to Steve Belloving, a computer science and cybersecurity expert at Columbia University, who offered this explanation on the matter:
“I think that that part of [Conway’s] comment is a non-technical person garbling something she heard but didn’t really understand,” Belloving said. “Maybe [Conway was thinking of] something about how the Soviets beamed microwaves at the US embassy in Moscow back in the 1970s, or maybe it was about how terahertz waves or WiFi can see through walls. Or maybe it’s about a 'smart,’ connected, microwave oven.”
As for whether or not microwaves can be used to take images, Belloving told Vice, “I don’t know of any direct way to turn microwaves into cameras. However, I don’t think that part of it is particularly important. What’s more important—and what she should know, as a graduate of a very good law school—is that she’s making baseless claims on less than no evidence.”
Let’s be clear: Microwaves emit waves, they don’t receive them.
So, putting the waves themselves aside, let’s look closer at the appliance itself. When it’s not warming up last night’s pizza (pro tip: you should just throw the pizza in the oven on some foil at 450 degrees for a few minutes) or defrosting chicken (try putting it on a stone surface for an hour or two and you’ll avoid the gross, rubbery, cooked parts when you use a microwave), here are the things a microwave - any microwave - can do.
According to Consumer Reports, the top-rated countertop microwave available in the US is the Magic Chef MCM1110ST. For about $100, this 1,000-watt microwave oven includes auto-defrost and touchpad controls. It also has 10 power levels and an LED display, and comes in an attractive brushed stainless steel design. Weighing in at a svelte 34.2 pounds, it’s well-reviewed and priced right.
But one thing it does not have is a camera. Or an internet connection. Or a microphone. Or a Wi-Fi card to connect to a wireless network. So, in short, the MCM1110ST cannot take pictures of you.
Let’s dig deeper into the world of higher-end microwave ovens, though: Surely there is a smart microwave oven that can connect to the internet and, subsequently, send information back to the CIA about your popcorn and leftover shenanigans. Maybe Conway knows a thing or two about upcoming microwave oven technology as a future public surveillance scheme.
The $200 Samsung MG14H3020CM (let’s be clear here: microwaves have extraordinarily sexy model names) is not just a microwave, but it also includes a grilling element to allow you to “enjoy crispy food in minutes as the grill function works to evenly distribute heat to the food reducing cold spots and allowing you to brown and crisp your food on the outside while maintaining a juicier inside.” I could have used that this afternoon when I reheated some of Sunday’s roast chicken?
The MG14H3020CM also includes a round rack and ceramic plate, which they say allows you to reheat that pizza while maintaining crispiness. As awesome as this microwave appears, it’s missing three important things to make it spy-worthy: a camera, a microphone and an internet connection.
I looked and I looked for a smart microwave: perhaps one that connects to your network and maybe even takes pictures of your done food. One that even Kellyanne would want in her kitchen.
As awesome as this microwave appears, it’s missing three important things to make it spy-worthy: a camera, a microphone and an internet connection.
The first problem is, of course, that microwave ovens interfere with wireless networks. This is because microwaves - the ones we use to cook things - operate on a very similar band as the most common Wi-Fi networks, right aroujnd 2.4 GHz. While most microwave ovens are shielded pretty well against such things, packing a Wi-Fi receiver into a device that emits microwaves wouldn’t be the best engineering decision.
So that idea is out.
Then I looked up Whirlpool, the company that arguably has more connected appliances than anyone else. They’ve got connected ovens, refrigerators, laundry machines and more. Their appliances even accept Alexa voice commands like “Set temperature to 350” and your devices will alert you on your smart phone when it’s time to put the cookies in.
They do indeed have just about everything in terms of tech that could potentially spy on you: connected ranges that know if you’re not home via your Nest thermostat so they can turn off and help you avoid an explosion. They have products that keep your clothes fresh by spinning the dryer a bit while you’re away. If anyone has a connected microwave, it’s gonna be Whirlpool.
And there she was: Whirlpool’s upcoming 2-in-1 microwave oven. Using new “Scan-to-Cook” technology, this 2017 oven will allow you to scan a UPC barcode on a food package in the Whirlpool mobile app and it will automatically send all the necessary settings to your oven, even based on your crispiness preferences.
With the camera on your smartphone and a connected oven that knows what you’re cooking, there is a microwave oven that, well, sort of turns into a camera. There it is: the connected, all-knowing microwave. Kellyanne knew this was coming. Imagine the data they’ll be collecting once we all start scanning in our Lean Cuisines and Stouffer’s!
One thing is clear: Once this new Whirlpool microwave comes out, your leftover pizza will be awesome.