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Kashmir Hill: Do Your Smart Devices Know Too Much?

Nov 2, 2018
Originally published on November 6, 2018 8:16 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Unintended Consequences.

About Kashmir Hill's TED Talk

When Kashmir Hill filled her home with smart devices, she knew they would collect massive amounts of her personal information. She wanted to understand: what's the ultimate cost of that data mining?

About Kashmir Hill

Kashmir Hill is a journalist who writes about technology and privacy for the Special Project Desk at Gizmodo Media Group.

In her approach to writing about privacy, she has created her own smart home, built a fake business, lived on bitcoin, and written in only caps for a week.

Through these projects, Kashmir explores the dark side of technology—and what we can do about it.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Unintended Consequences - ideas about the things we invent to make life better, and the outcomes we never see coming.


RAZ: Do you remember, like, the first smart device you got?

KASHMIR HILL: Well, I think the Fitbit was the first thing I got...

RAZ: Yeah.

HILL: ...That was kind of Internet of things. Like, taking real-world data and quantifying it for me so I could reflect on it, and it could, you know, improve my life, improve my fitness.

RAZ: And did it?

HILL: Um (ph)...

RAZ: This is Kashmir Hill.

HILL: (Laughter) No.

RAZ: Kashmir is a tech reporter for Gizmodo Media.

HILL: I'm specifically focused on privacy. So I spend a lot of time thinking about the way that technology is changing the way that we live and what happens to our data and our information.

RAZ: Do you remember when you first heard the term Internet of things? Like, oh, you're going to have a smart fridge that's going to tell you you need more eggs. And you're going to have a smart coffee maker that's going to, you know, tell you how much coffee you're drinking. And everything in your kitchen is going to be connected, and it's going to be awesome.

And I'm thinking, that's awesome. It's like those "Wallace and Gromit" movies where he's, like, you know, like springboarded off the bed, and then, like, drops into his breakfast seat, and there's the toast and the coffee, you know. I was really - this was exciting to me.

HILL: Yeah, and hopefully, you know, they would do all this work for you, so you would have more free time to do more interesting, creative things or watch more Netflix. But yeah, I was kind of imagining my house anticipating my needs and really taking care of me.


RAZ: And Kashmir actually got a chance to experience what it would be like to live in an entire home filled with smart devices.

HILL: I got a smart toothbrush, a smart coffeemaker, a robot vacuum - the Roomba. (Laughter) I bought a smart sex toy.

RAZ: Except that things didn't go exactly as planned. Kashmir Hill picks up the story from the TED stage.


HILL: Being smart means the device can connect to the Internet, it can gather data and it can talk to its owner. But once your appliances can talk to you, who else are they going to be talking to? I wanted to find out, so I went all-in and turned my one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco into a smart home. Altogether, I installed 18 Internet-connected devices in my home. I also installed a Surya.

SURYA MATTU: Hi, I'm Surya.


MATTU: And I monitored everything the smart home did. I built a special router that let me look at all the network activity.

HILL: Surya and I are both journalists. He's not my husband. We just work together at Gizmodo.

MATTU: Thank you for clarifying (laughter). The devices Kashmir bought - we were interested in understanding what they were saying to their manufacturers. But we were also interested in understanding what the home's digital emissions looked like to the Internet service provider. We were seeing what her ISP could see, but more importantly, what they could sell.

HILL: We ran the experiment for two months. In that two months, there wasn't a single hour of digital silence in the house - not even when we went away for a week.

MATTU: Yeah, it's so true. Based on the data, I knew when you guys woke up, and I when you went to bed. I even knew when Kashmir brushed her teeth. The devices Kashmir bought almost all pinged their servers daily. But do you know which device was especially chatty? The Amazon Echo. It contacted its servers every three minutes, regardless of whether you were using it or not.


RAZ: Wow. I'm just wondering here, with all these smart devices, what are we actually giving up?

HILL: I mean, so there's a couple of things. I always focus on privacy. There are definitely security concerns by connecting our devices to the Internet. Devices are made by companies that have traditionally not been Internet companies, so they are not as savvy about internet security. We are exposing ourselves to the possibility of people intruding in our homes through these devices.

So that has happened with baby monitors, for example. And so you had hackers that were accessing cameras in baby's rooms, sometimes even able to talk to the babies. So that's really alarming. What I was more concerned about was this tracking of what we're doing in our most intimate spaces and what is eventually done with that data and just the feeling of being constantly observed in our own homes, how that changes the - really, the sanctity of the home.


MATTU: The devices Kashmir bought range from useful to annoying, but the thing they all had in common was sharing data with the companies that made them. With email service providers and social media, we've long been told that if it's free, you're the product. But with the Internet of things, it seems, even if you pay, you're still the product. So you really have to ask, who is the true beneficiary of your smart home, you or the company mining you?


RAZ: So when a smart TV or an Amazon Echo or Google Home or whatever device you have - right? - when those devices are pinging the companies and then sending that data back, I mean, they're just building a profile of who we are.

HILL: I mean, absolutely. You know Roomba that makes my - iRobot makes Roomba, the smart vacuum. So they know, for example, like, how often I vacuum my house and which parts of the house are dirty. The CEO of iRobot, at one point, was talking to journalists and said, yeah, we actually have access to great data. We have maps of people's homes, and we could potentially sell that to all these - you know, these companies are getting into the smart home market, like Google and Amazon and Apple. And people who had Roombas flipped out because they hadn't thought about that at all - that their vacuum was sucking up information about their home that could potentially be sold. An iRobot CEO later walked it back and said, oh, you know, we'd never do that without people's consent.

But it was one of these wake-ups to the fact that these devices in our homes that don't - you know, they don't look like data collectors. They don't look like cameras. They don't have obvious lenses that they are watching what we're doing and collecting information about what we're doing. And I think every single company now is thinking, you know, how do we monetize data? Data's the new oil. What can we do to make new revenue streams? And they're looking at data.

RAZ: Yeah. Yes. I mean, once there are these comprehensive profiles of our behaviors and our habits and our likes and dislikes, I mean, we could be judged before we even walk through the door, like for a bank loan or a job or, you know, or anything.

HILL: Right. And I don't think - companies don't think of this as nefarious. They say, like, oh, we just want to know what you want to buy.

RAZ: Yeah.

HILL: But I think what we've seen with online tracking is that there are nefarious uses of this data - you know, attempts to manipulate the way that we think about the world, try to influence the way that we vote. And it's all happening with a profile of us that we don't know about that's been compiled by a company we've never heard of before.

And it's just creating this real paranoia for people because they don't know why they're seeing what they're seeing, but they kind of know that there's this data collection going on. And I think people are getting really worried about how these companies are influencing us and how much access to our data they have.


RAZ: Kashmir Hill - she's a reporter for Gizmodo Media. You can see Kashmir and Surya's full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.