Q&A: Kashmir Hill of The New York Times

We talked about secret consumer scores, technology and privacy, and how a single tweet led to a job offer at the New York Times...

Technology reporter Kashmir Hill joined the New York Times in summer 2019. Recently, she wrote about secret consumer scores that companies use to determine things like whether you move to the front or the end of the line for customer service.

I’d never met anyone who managed to obtain their data, but Hill figured out how to get the entire 400-page report that a company called Sift had compiled on her. She wrote about the experience and gave instructions on how you can ask for your information.

(I’m Bill Murphy Jr. and this is Understandably. If you like this article, why not sign up for the daily email newsletter.)

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I interviewed Hill this week. We talked about things like:

  • consumer scores and her story,

  • how she developed a beat writing about privacy and technology, and

  • how a single tweet she posted on April 30 before getting on an airplane ultimately led to her getting hired this summer at the Times.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Let's start with the 400-page report from Sift. Did that surprise you?

Hill: The Sift file was the real-jaw dropper … It had my Airbnb messages and my Yelp orders from years ago, and every time I had used Coinbase.

They were scored as “fraud or not fraud,” “abusive or not abusive,” “account takeover or not account takeover.”

Q: When you first reached out to get the scores, did you say, ‘I’m Kashmir Hill, reporter with the New York Times?’ I know you wound up talking with Sift’s CEO.

Hill: No, I reached out to all these companies just as a kind of normal consumer from my personal email account.

But [Sift] figured out pretty quickly that I was a journalist, and so they sent me my file, and then their CEO reached and said, “Hey, if you want to talk about privacy, if you have any questions about your report, I’m here.”

Q: You said a report from the Consumer Education Foundation in June inspired you to do this. How do you write a story like this? How long does it take?

Hill: I joined at the Times at the end of July and I think I read that report in August. So, I put in my data requests around the time that I read the report, and then it took about a month for the different companies to get my files back to me.

Q: How did you wind up writing about privacy and tech to begin with?

Hill: I started out a very long time ago as a blogger on Above the Law, doing legal reporting. And then I went to journalism school for magazine journalism at NYU, and they encouraged me to develop a niche.

So I came up with a blog at the time called “The Not So Private Parts.” Initially, it was privacy and the law, but I had to keep writing about Facebook and Google and online cookies and tracking, and I kind of backed into becoming a technology reporter.

I moved that blog over to Forbes, and then I went to a company called Fusion, which bought Gizmodo Media Group, so I wound up at Gizmodo. When I first started a decade ago, I remember people were like, “I don't understand how privacy could be a beat. How is there that much?”

Q: You've identified a growth industry for a journalist, which is not the case for everything. How do you normally get story ideas? Are you the type of person that rejects 99 for every one that makes it through to the end?

Hill: I think it's probably like any other journalist, talking to experts in the field, doing a lot of reading and thinking about what are the questions that haven't been answered. Or, “what's a part of this that hasn't been explored?”

I'm often looking for first-person stories.

Like when I was reporting on Bitcoin, I lived on Bitcoin for a week in San Francisco. When I was writing about the privacy and the Internet of things, I turned my house into a smart home and then measured the data that was leaving it and coming into it.

I tried to cut the tech giants out of my life and spent six weeks on that story, working with a technologist who actually prevented my devices from accessing, Amazon and Facebook and Google and Apple and Microsoft servers.

Q: This “secret score” story has 200-something comments. What have you heard from readers and also what have you heard from the companies?

Hill: I feel kind of badly for Sift, because they're getting the lion's share of attention from the article, because they're the ones that sent me a 400-page file.

But they were actually the best actor among the companies in that they were fully transparent. They sent me that file, and spent a lot of time talking to me.

I live in New York and there's no law here that says a company has to share that information with me. So they're really kind of going above and beyond. Other companies didn't share as much data with me. Some gave me the runaround.

When I originally reached out to [Sift], they said they hadn't had much of a response to the data request process that they set up this summer. But, the day of the story, by lunchtime, they'd gotten 8,000 data requests. So they're really busy right now.

Q: That's so interesting. At least some of them, it’s not the most consumer-friendly UX for requesting data.

Hill: No.

Q: The one I saw was, “take a picture and upload your driver's license.”

Hill: Yeah, I've heard from a lot of readers who are uncomfortable with that. They don't want to give this company they've never heard even more information.

But at the same time, that is an important step in the process. Just because you wouldn't want anybody to be able to approach one of these firms and claim to be you and then get your file.

Q: Given that you were at Gizmodo at one point, do you pay attention to how many people read your stories online?

Hill: I do. I mean, I do pay attention, but we don't share our stats. It was definitely on the most popular story list for a few days.

Q: Got it. Can you tell me anything about the process of winding up at the Times? Do they recruit you or do you apply to them or how does this work?

I had a very unusual recruitment processes because I unexpectedly got laid off by Gizmodo Media Group when they were taken over by a private equity firm that was doing a bunch of cost cutting.

It happened to me while I was at the airport moving from California to New York, so I kind of tweeted before I got on the plane that my day had taken a rough turn.

And, I had pretty good reputation as a technology journalist. So, by the time the plane landed, I already had a few job offers, and by the end of the week I had quite a few.

So I kind of got to choose where I wanted to go next.

And the New York Times is an amazing place to be with so many incredible reporters, and a really great tech team. So, I was pretty thrilled to be recruited by them.

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