Digital Dumpster diving: A trashcan that reports on what you throw away

An early Internet of Things entrant demonstrates some of the problems the IoT will bring

dumpster diving in russia
Credit: Ilya Plekhanov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Every now and then, a product comes along that is either genius-level brilliant or celestially clueless. To get the CC award, product designers must force themselves to not only ignore the bad ways the product could be used or to naively believe that minimal safeguards would prevent them. For your consideration: the GeniCan, which scans and otherwise figures out almost everything you are throwing away or recycling and wirelessly transmits that data back to the mother ship.

With that plan, what in the world could possibly go right? By the way, if, against the odds, this proves to not be an NSA front, some government worker isn’t earning his salary.

GeniCan is a smallish device that attaches to any garbage can (metal or plastic; round or square) whose owner can be talked into shelling out $179. These presumably intoxicated consumers agree as part of the app download to share this information, in exchange for possible coupons and other goodies as well as an automated shopping list.

genican

A GeniCan device installed in a round metal trashcan

The device scans nearly every barcode on packaging that is thrown away or recycled. (Oh yeah, you’ll probably want a second GeniCan for your recycling bin.) You can also talk to GeniCan, since it is outfitted with a speaker and microphone. When GeniCan can’t read the barcode on something you toss out (or because it’s something like an apple core and simply doesn’t have a barcode), it will ask you to say the item’s name. For the paranoid among us, you can interpret this as the ability of your trashcan to listen in on all your conversations. But look at the bright side: Company officials rejected installing a tiny camera for image recognition of discarded items, according to CEO Rob Griffin, because “the actual image recognition is not there yet.” Even without the camera, it is one very nosy trashcan.

But useful, certainly. Because how else would you be able to tell that your trashcan is full? Yes, GeniCan will send an alert to the mobile app to tell you that it’s time to take the garbage out. Asked the value of this, Griffin said it would be helpful in a family where some members might top off the garbage without emptying it. Maybe someday it will be able to rat out the person who walked away from the full trashcan.

As we move toward the Internet of Things, we are going to see the introduction of a lot of devices that bring technology that have always been low-tech, if not no-tech, like garbage cans. This is not necessarily a great thing, and the GeniCan sort of proves this. Besides there being a host of potentially disastrous privacy issues with the GeniCan, its fundamental premise — that a precise cataloguing of tossed items will create a usable shopping list — is flawed. First of all, anything that you throw away that doesn’t get read by the GeniCan scanner —at work, say — isn’t going to show up on your shopping list. And some of the things that are scanned and do show up on the shopping list are items that you never want to buy again. (Bacon-flavored kale chips sounded great when I was in the store.) So you end up fixing the list with a lot of manual additions and deletions. Not a big deal, but how is that an improvement over existing shopping apps? When I run out of something I want, I grab my phone and hit one button to put it back on my list. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer that to carefully editing an automated list of everything my family has thrown out. (Or nearly everything. I should note that you have the option of putting something in your GeniCan-equipped trashcan without letting the device read it. So if you don’t want to buy those kale chips again, you can just sort of sneak them into the trash. But the onus is on the consumer, who has presumably trained himself to throw things away in a scannable fashion, to throw those chips away in a non-scannable fashion.)

When I told Griffin that, he countered that there are times when you don’t want to touch your phone, for example when throwing out something messy like raw chicken. That, he said, is where the voice recognition makes more sense. The problem with that is that GeniCan’s voice recognition offers no verification. So you get to the store with your garbage can’s shopping list and find that you’re supposed to be in need of bongos, chosen fruit and Lego bricks. Something doesn’t seem right to you. Don’t worry; you can ask the app to play back the original audio file, and assuming that you can hear it well enough in the crowded supermarket, you will discover that what you really need are mangos, frozen shrimp and potato chips.

But the real problem with this device, and a lot of other things imagined for the IoT, is that they are a marketer’s — and an identify thief’s — dream come true. Everything you throw out is analyzed and catalogued and broadcast out to the device’s maker and, from there, to wherever that vendor wants to dispatch it.

On its website, GeniCan does try to address this concern. “GeniCan stores all grocery list items independently from personally identifiable information, and we do not share individual grocery lists or provide data to delivery services (or any other party) without consent of the user,” the site says. “GeniCan matches third-party coupons by UPC codes and product type information only, we do not use or send personally identifiable information.”

Let’s take these claims one at a time. The app “stores all grocery list items independently from personally identifiable information.” Hmm, interesting. You see, the app sends coupons to customers based on what they throw away. For that to work, doesn’t the grocery list need to be connected to personally identifiable information?

“We do not share individual grocery lists or provide data to delivery services (or any other party) without consent of the user.” Is that an active consent or a “click here to download after you accept our terms and conditions” kind of consent? It’s the ability to send out offers to an individual’s phone that make it all but impossible to entirely avoid identifiable data. The company can decide to not leverage that data, but that’s a very big incentive to resist.

Griffin confirmed that his team will have identifiable data, but stresses that the company has chosen to not share that with marketers. “Privacy is super important. The actual items on your grocery list are private” other than for people who are granted access, such as family members, Griffin said. OK, but what is to stop the company from making a different choice about all of this down the road? This means that shoppers must fully trust Griffin’s team to maintain their privacy, even though there will be massive industry pressures on them to sell it. The CEO said that the only elements that are being shared are email addresses and ZIP codes. But what about geolocation? He said that the company will grab location data when a shopper reports being inside a store. “When you click store mode, in order to verify which store you’re in,” GeniCan will do a location check, Griffin said.

The app’s store mode does give rise to an intriguing aspect of the company’s plan. Griffin said that GeniCan will use a combination of third-party databases and consumer crowdsourcing to create planograms (aisle maps) of stores all over the U.S. That would be quite an accomplishment, but it’s something that many apps have struggled with. Among the difficulties: Store managers like to move merchandise around to expose shoppers to new impulse purchase temptations. Griffin hopes that input from his customers — motivated by things like $5 coupons if they note the location of x number of items — will make his maps accurate. To do that, though, he would not only need a large number of customers in one geographic region, but a large number of customers visiting the same store. That’s unlikely to happen in time for that feature to be useful.

For now, the company is trying to raise funds for the rollout at Indiegogo, with a goal of $50,000. Thus far, 10 days in, 30 people have kicked in, for a total of $4,170. As of Sunday (May 3), the site had 12 comments on it, 11 of them from company employees. (My favorite is from co-founder/vice president of creative David Pestka. Here it is verbatim: “Who can make your shopping list,…Easier for you?...Who can get the fam-i-ly to help you with it too?...The GeniCan can….The GeniCan can!!”)

As we move ever deeper into the IoT mindset, I’m not wild about my refrigerator, showerhead and thermostat beaming my secrets to Madison Avenue. But paying for the privilege of giving my trashcan an IP address and a microphone? That’s one idea that should have been thrown away from the start.

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.

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