What Happens When You Fill A House With 'Smart' Technology

Feb 12, 2018
Originally published on February 12, 2018 6:14 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Lots of us are putting smart speakers in our homes. By NPR's own analysis, 1 in 6 Americans can now just using their voices call up the weather or a favorite song or turn on NPR. But why stop with speakers? A reporting team at Gizmodo decided to conduct an experiment and take the smart home concept to the extreme.

Well, to explain quite how extreme, we've invited the team to come join us. Kashmir Hill joins us from San Francisco. Hi there.

KASHMIR HILL: Hi.

KELLY: And Surya Mattu from New York - hi to you, too.

SURYA MATTU: Hi.

KELLY: Kashmir, your home served as the site for this experiment. Walk us through what you did.

HILL: Yeah, so my husband, my 1-year-old daughter and I were the guinea pigs for this experiment.

KELLY: (Laughter).

HILL: And - (laughter) where I smartened up our house and got a ton of devices that are Internet-connected. We already had a smart TV. We had the Amazon Echo smart speaker.

KELLY: OK.

HILL: But I also got an Internet-connected toothbrush, a sex toy, a photo frame, a coffeemaker, connected our bed to the Internet.

KELLY: Your toothbrush was the one that got me - connected and reminding you when to brush and relaying that to the world. Why did this seem like an appealing idea?

HILL: I wouldn't say it was appealing exactly, but we definitely thought it would help people anticipate the future. And so we wanted to see the state of the technology right now. And then what we were really interested in was whether my smart home would betray me.

KELLY: Ooh (ph), OK. We're going to circle back to that. But, Surya Mattu, let me let you jump in here 'cause to be clear, you do not live in this smart home.

MATTU: I do not.

KELLY: You live on the other side of the country. What was your role in all this?

MATTU: I was sort of the watchdog. So when Kash kind of came up with this idea originally, I was really curious to understand how often these devices are talking to their companies and how often those companies are asking for information from these devices. And so I just made a setup for us that allowed us to monitor that.

KELLY: Basically you built a router so that you could see everything that was being communicated...

MATTU: That's right.

KELLY: ...Back and forth. And worth noting - I think we all kind of know this in the back of our heads, but these devices are all communicating even if we're not using them, even if we're not home.

MATTU: All the time.

KELLY: So what were you able to see?

MATTU: I was able to see a bunch of different things. I think the most surprising for me was just by kind of, like, correlating signals across different devices and, like, oh, they've probably just woken up or, oh, they were watching TV last night or, oh, Kash has maybe not brushed her teeth yet.

KELLY: Kashmir, you said you set out to determine whether these devices would betray you. What do you mean?

HILL: Well, I just wanted to find out how much information they would be sending out and where they would be sending it to. I was surprised by how often a lot of the devices that were sitting there unused were actually talking to their home servers. So the Amazon Echo was pinging Amazon every three minutes whether we were using it or not, whether it was muted or not. My smart TV was quite talkative about what we were doing (laughter). Surya was like, it looks like you've been watching - you watched TV all day on Christmas, which I was very embarrassed about, but my husband's family wanted to watch basketball all day.

KELLY: Well, let me ask you both what your takeaway is from this. Surya, you start.

MATTU: I think my main takeaway is the - our devices generate a lot of data about us. And while most of it isn't necessarily true, it still is, like, something people sell.

KELLY: And, Kashmir, how about you? I mean, the whole fantasy of a smart home is that it's going to make our lives way easier and less stressful. Was that your experience?

HILL: Yeah. I mean, I think my takeaway was that smart homes are not very convenient right now. They're very frustrating and annoying to live in. And so it's not worth the privacy tradeoff.

KELLY: Yet. Maybe watch this space...

HILL: Yet.

KELLY: ...As it all - as the technology...

HILL: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Improves, and you can run this again in a year.

HILL: Yeah, I think it will improve. And so one - a bigger takeaway I had from this is that I think that we all need what Surya bought for me, this router or some kind of interface that you can see what your products are doing and see what they're saying so that you're at least aware of the fact that you don't solely own these devices. You're really sharing custody with the company that made it. And we should be able to see what they're saying to those companies.

KELLY: Thanks so much to both of you.

MATTU: Thank you.

HILL: Thanks.

KELLY: Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu are reporters at Gizmodo. Their story is "The House That Spied On Me." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.