Kashmir Hill: So for my birthday last year, my husband got me an Amazon Echo. I was kind of shocked, actually, because we both work in privacy and security.
And this was a device that would sit in the middle of our home with a microphone on, constantly listening.
We're not alone, though. According to a survey by NPR and Edison Research, one in six American adults now has a smart speaker, which means that they have a virtual assistant at home. Like, that's wild. The future, or the future dystopia, is getting here fast. Beyond that, companies are offering us all kinds of internet-connected devices. There are smart lights, smart locks, smart toilets, smart toys, smart sex toys. 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. I even connected our bed to the internet. As far as I know, it was just measuring our sleeping habits. I can now tell you that the only thing worse than getting a terrible night's sleep is to have your smart bed tell you the next day that you "missed your goal and got a low sleep score."
It's like, "Thanks, smart bed. As if I didn't already feel like shit today."
All together, I installed 18 internet-connected devices in my home. I also installed a Surya.
Surya Mattu: Hi, I'm Surya.
I monitored everything the smart home did. I built a special router that let me look at all the network activity. You can think of my router sort of like a security guard, compulsively logging all the network packets as they entered and left the smart home.
KH: Surya and I are both journalists, he's not my husband, we just work together at Gizmodo.
SM: Thank you for clarifying. 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 look like to the internet service provider. We were seeing what the ISP could see, but more importantly, what they could sell.
KH: 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.
SM: Yeah, it's so true. Based on the data, I knew when you guys woke up and went to bed. I even knew when Kashmir brushed her teeth. I'm not going to out your brushing habits, but let's just say it was very clear to me when you were working from home.
KH: Uh, I think you just outed them to, like, a lot of people here.
SM: Don't be embarrassed, it's just metadata.
I knew when you turned on your TV and how long you watched it for. Fun fact about the Hill household: they don't watch a lot of television, but when they do, it's usually in binge mode. Favorite shows include "Difficult People" and "Party Down."
KH: OK, you're right, I loved "Party Down." It's a great show, and you should definitely watch it. But "Difficult People" was all my husband, Trevor. And Trevor was actually a little upset that you knew about his binges, because even though he'd been the one to connect the TV to the router, he forgot that the TV was watching us.
It's actually not the first time that our TV has spied on us. The company that made it, VIZIO, paid a 2.2 million-dollar settlement to the government just last year, because it had been collecting second-by-second information about what millions of people were watching on TV, including us, and then it was selling that information to data brokers and advertisers.
SM: Ah, classic surveillance economy move. 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.
KH: In general, it was disconcerting that all these devices were having ongoing conversations that were invisible to me. I mean, I would have had no idea, without your router. If you buy a smart device, you should probably know — you're going to own the device, but in general, the company is going to own your data. And you know, I mean, maybe that's to be expected — you buy an internet-connected device, it's going to use the internet. But it's strange to have these devices moving into the intimate space that is the home and allowing companies to track our really basic behavior there.
SM: So true. Even the most banal-seeming data can be mined by the surveillance economy. For example, who cares how often you brush your teeth? Well, as it turns out, there's a dental insurance company called Beam. They've been monitoring their customers' smart toothbrushes since 2015 — for discounts on their premiums, of course.
KH: We know what some of you are thinking: this is the contract of the modern world. You give up a little privacy, and you get some convenience or some price breaks in return. But that wasn't my experience in my smart home. It wasn't convenient, it was infuriating. I'll admit, I love my smart vacuum, but many other things in the house drove me insane: we ran out of electrical outlets, and I had to download over a dozen apps to my phone to control everything. And then every device had its own log-in, my toothbrush had a password ...
And smart coffee, especially, was just a world of hell.
SM: Wait, really? Cloud-powered coffee wasn't really working for you?
KH: I mean, maybe I'm naive, but I thought it was going to be great. I thought we'd just wake up in the morning and we'd say, "Alexa, make us coffee." But that's not how it went down. We had to use this really particular, brand-specific phrase to make it work. It was, "Alexa, ask the Behmor to run quick start." And this was just, like, really hard to remember first thing in the morning, before you have had your caffeine.
And apparently, it was hard to say, because the Echo Dot that was right next to our bed just couldn't understand us. So we would basically start every day by screaming this phrase at the Echo Dot.
And Trevor hated this. He'd be like, "Please, Kashmir, just let me go to the kitchen and push the button to make the coffee run." And I'd be like, "No, you can't! We have to do it the smart way!"
I'm happy to report that our marriage survived the experiment, but just barely.
SM: If you decide to make your home smart, hopefully, you’ll find it less infuriating than Kashmir did. But regardless, the smart things you buy can and probably are used to target and profile you. Just the number of devices you have can be used to predict how rich or poor you are. Facebook's made this tech, and they've also patented it.
KH: All the anxiety you currently feel every time you go online, about being tracked, is about to move into your living room. Or into your bedroom.
There's this sex toy called the We-Vibe. You might wonder why a sex toy connects to the internet, but it's for two people who are in a long-distance relationship, so they can share their love from afar. Some hackers took a close look at this toy and saw it was sending a lot of information back to the company that made it — when it was used, how long it was used for, what the vibration settings were, how hot the toy got. It was all going into a database. So I reached out to the company, and I said, "Why are you collecting this really sensitive data?" And they said, "Well, it's great for market research." But they were data-mining their customers' orgasms. And they weren't telling them about it. I mean, even if you're cavalier about privacy, I hope that you would admit that's a step too far.
SM: This is why I want to keep my sex toys dumb.
KH: That's great. We're all very glad to know that.
SM: A data point I'm willing to share.
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's the true beneficiary of your smart home, you or the company mining you?
KH: Look, we're a tech savvy crowd here. I think most of us know that these things connect to the internet and send data out. And fine, maybe you're OK with living in that commercial panopticon, but others aren't. We need the companies to rethink the design of these devices with our privacy in mind, because we're not all willing to participate in "market research," just because a device we bought has a Wi-Fi connection. And I have to tell you, even when you're aware, generally, this is happening, it's really easy to forget that normal household items are spying on you. It's easy to forget these things are watching you, because they don't look like cameras. They could look like ... well, they could look like a dildo.