Over the past two decades, we’ve filled our homes with devices capable of listening in on our conversations and surreptitiously recording our movements if we tap a bad link or install something that we shouldn’t, accidentally handing access over to a hacker. But the list of vulnerable devices includes phones and computers and connect speakers — not microwave ovens.
Over the weekend, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tried to defend the president’s unproven claims that he was wiretapped by the Obama administration by citing a story she read about how gadgets can be hacked to spy on you. “There was an article this week that talked about how you can surveil someone through their phones, certainly through their television sets, any number of different ways. And microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera,” Conway told The Bergen Record on Sunday. “So we know that is just a fact of modern life.”
Conway is right, to a point, that some of this is a fact of modern life, and a scary one at that — computer webcams have long been a target of hackers. Microwave ovens, however, are not regarded as hacking targets. And, as far as we’re aware, are not able to be turned into tools for surveillance.
Appliances that can be hacked to spy on you usually include a microphone or a camera, if not some other method for receiving data. But microwave ovens don’t typically include either of those.
That means it would be up to the microwaves themselves — the actual waves, that is — to somehow create and transmit images. So is that possible?
“We image things with microwaves all the time, but not in the way that it sounds like she was implying,” Robert McNees, a theoretical physicist at Loyola University Chicago, writes in an email to The Verge. “For instance, we make maps of the relic microwave radiation left over from the early universe. And I think I’ve heard of medical application of microwave imaging, too[.]”
But those applications are pretty far from what’s happening inside a typical microwave. “With a regular, consumer microwave oven?” McNees asks. “That sounds far-fetched to me.”
Wired asked a researcher who works on microwave imaging and got a similar response. “I can’t conceive of an effective way to do any of it from your microwave oven,” University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher Stephen Frasier told the publication.
Part of this goes back to the reason you can’t turn on a microwave while it’s open: they’re designed to contain all emissions, lest they harm someone. That would make it fairly difficult for a microwave to spy on you, since its waves can’t escape the metal box that generates them. And you would probably notice — and freak out — if your microwave turned on while the door was ajar.
This was probably more of a misstatement on Conway’s part than a full on attempt at spreading an alternative fact, and she did try to walk the quote back today, telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo, “I’m not Inspector Gadget. I don’t believe people are using the microwave to spy on the Trump campaign.” Explaining how or if Trump was spied on is not her role, Conway explained. “I’m not in the job of having evidence,” she said. “That’s what investigations are for.”
The Verge reached out to several microwave manufacturers, including Panasonic and Westinghouse, for comment. Only GE responded, answering our question on whether the company’s microwaves can spy on people with a clear “no.”
“GE Appliances takes the privacy of our owners’ information very seriously,” a spokesperson continued. “Our microwaves are designed and manufactured for the sole purpose of cooking food. Our microwaves do not come equipped with microphones or any other equipment that would enable the activities Ms. Conway suggested.”
If President Trump is worried about devices spying on him, there are more obvious places to look.