Combining Technology and Reporting for Impactful Journalism

By Sandy K. Johnson

All those internet-connected devices in your home? They’re sending data back to their manufacturers in volumes that most people can’t grasp.

Gizmodo journalists Kashmir Hill (bio, Twitter) and Surya Mattu (bio, Twitter) set out to explore the privacy implications of those devices by combining Hill’s expertise as a reporter with Mattu’s as an engineer and technologist. The story idea, as Hill explained: “Let’s spy on the devices that are spying on me.”

The resulting project, “The House That Spied on Me,” won the National Press Foundation’s Technology in Journalism Award.

For the reporting, Hill and Mattu settled on 18 smart devices – including a coffeemaker, vacuum, TV, and even a mattress – and installed them in the San Francisco apartment Hill shares with her husband and children. Mattu built a router that intercepted the data from all the devices so he could track and analyze each device. (In this story, Mattu describes how the router worked, although he warns the explanation requires some tech savvy to understand.)

For a month, the devices tracked the daily rhythms of Hill’s home. All the while, Mattu tracked the trackers.

Smart devices are projected to be a $27 billion market in a few years. Manufacturers use the data to understand a user’s lifestyle and incorporate it into models and algorithms to guide development of new products.

For instance, a smart toothbrush gives information to dental insurers to understand user behavior. (it also meant Mattu knew when Hill brushed her teeth – and when she didn’t.) Hill’s Vizio TV tracked what the family watched and when.

Hill’s Echo device was sending information to Amazon every three minutes, whether it was in “sleep” mode or not. Even when the family was away for a week, the devices kept reporting back to manufacturers.

While the data collection is not necessarily nefarious, Mattu said few people understand just how much data is generated by their internet-connected devices. Further, Gizmodo’s reporting illustrated how a botnet army could possibly take advantage of vulnerabilities in your smart home.

Not every newsroom is fortunate to have a technologist like Mattu, who as an engineer “speaks tech natively.” But Hill said the technology component opened all kinds of avenues that she would not have considered or realized as a reporter.

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