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TED 2018: The smart home that spied on its owner

From BBC - April 13, 2018

For two months in early 2018, technology journalist Kashmir Hill let innocent household items spy on her.

She had turned her one-bedroom apartment into a "smart home" and was measuring how much data was being collected by the firms that made the devices.

Her smart toothbrush betrayed when she had not brushed her teeth, her television revealed when she had spent the day bingeing on programmes, and her smart speaker spoke to the world's largest online retailer every day.

It was like living in a "commercial, surveillance state" with "not a single hour of digital silence", she said.

Ms Hill, who reports for the technology news website Gizmodo, gave a TED talk describing her experience.

Her colleague Surya Mattu had built a special wi-fi router to monitor the devices listening to her life. They found that she was giving away a lot of information.

"The Amazon Echo [a smart speaker] talked to Amazon servers every three minutes and the TV was sending information about every show we watched on Hulu, which was in turn shared with data brokers."

But perhaps more worrying than the data she could track, was the vast amount that she could not.

"With the other data I do not know ultimately where it was shared," she said.

The lack of transparency about what happens to the huge amount of consumer data that is sucked out of smart devices and social networks every day has been in sharp focus in the last few weeks.

Facebook remains under intense scrutiny after it was revealed that up to 87 million Facebook users may have had their profile information accessed by marketing firm Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge.

But while some consumers are prepared to part with their data for the convenience of access to free services such as Facebook and Google, Ms Hill did not feel this was true of her smart experiment.

"My smart home was not convenient. Things did not work, the smart coffee was horrible, Alexa did not understand us and my take-away was that the privacy trade-off was not worth it."

Facebook may currently be in the spotlight, but it is by no means the first to be caught out over the mishandling of user data.

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