Gift Your Family Gadgets That Don’t Spy on Them

Think twice before you buy someone an internet-connected gift

Photo: Ben Kolde/Unsplash

The wrapping paper flies into the air, twisting and turning as it falls back to the ground. One after another, perfectly parceled presents are ripped open in seconds. Excitement explodes as each gift is revealed.

Finally, the item you (or Santa) stashed under the tree is pulled out to join the frenzy. As your present is revealed, you explain what it is to the overjoyed recipient.

“This year, I bought you a device that can play music via voice control. Pretty cool, right? It may also spy on you and listen to your conversations without your permission.”

The mood somewhat darkens. It doesn’t seem very Christmassy anymore. Maybe this should be one of those gifts that’s best left in its box and tucked away in the cupboard under the stairs for all eternity.

In the modern age of technology, and more specifically, the internet of things, the thought really does count. We have to give some serious consideration to how these products might violate our privacy.

With internet connectivity comes privacy concerns, stories of government and company spying, and unsolicited collection of data. And you don’t want to be the one guilty of bringing that into someone’s home right? Since these gifts might live in someone’s living room or bedroom or on their wrists for months, or even years, the decision of what to buy shouldn’t be taken lightly.

You don’t need to be tech-savvy to understand which gadgets protect user data. Mozilla has the perfect shopping guide, Privacy Not Included, to help you shop for safe and secure internet-connected products.

And it goes deep.

Mozilla takes a look at 93 products and rates each against its specially formulated Minimum Security Requirements, which is a list of features that the company believes any product with internet connectivity should have in order to be sold to the public.

The requirements take a look at whether a product offers encryption, security updates, strong passwords, and vulnerability management (looking for and dealing with bugs).

But the main target here is privacy and user data. Mozilla doubles down on this for each of its tested products. The report shows if, and how, the company shares the data it collects with third parties and if the company provides a way for users to request that their data be deleted. Mozilla determines how easy it is to find clear information about the device’s privacy and how user-friendly this is. The report shows if the device collects biometric data and determines what data sets it uses. Finally, the devices are tested on whether they have parental controls, important for devices aimed at increasingly younger children.

But best, and most relatable of all, Mozilla allows users of the website to rate how creepy a product is. The further you scroll down the page, the creepier the product. If there was ever an indicator for which products to avoid putting in somebody’s home, creepiness is certainly an effective one.

Super Creepy. Photo: Mozilla

Mozilla ends each product review with a slightly tongue-in-cheek doomsday scenario, where they assess what could happen if something went wrong with the product. For example, they claim the Google Home device might get to know you too well:

They know you have a mouse problem because you keep asking for ways to get rid of mice. They recognize your voice from all the times you ordered plain cheese pizza. They know you are single because who orders plain cheese pizza? Just kidding, they know you’re single because of all those pedicure appointments you’ve booked for one. Maybe it’s okay Google knows you so well. Maybe it’s creepy. It’s all fun and games until those weirdly specific targeted political ads start tracking you all around the internet.

But for all the dry humor on display, the Privacy Not Included buyer’s guide is an important piece of consumer research. It flags products like the Ring Video Doorbell and holds them accountable for shady practices. “They aren’t as transparent as we would like them to be about their privacy and data deletion practices. They say they don’t do facial recognition while having hired a ‘head of facial recognition research.’” All in all, this is a security video camera that raises just too many questions about privacy and security, in our opinion.”

It’s not only Mozilla who can hold these companies accountable. By using this guide to buy from companies who respect their users’ data and privacy, we can send out a strong message to those who don’t. As the Mozilla team says: “We as consumers need to demand value from the people who build our products. It’s how we’ll start to make the internet, and our lives, a bit safer in this digital world.”

So, when you’re searching for gifts this year, avoid the desperate dash for those random IoT devices. Realize that your purchase leads to your loved ones creating accounts, downloading apps, signing their data away, and potentially getting caught up in scandals they never asked for.

Use this guide to find a gift you can trust, and one that ensures your friends’ and family’s privacy is included.

Editor in Chief of Post-Grad Survival Guide • Columnist in Marker • Words in Forge, Debugger, Future Human & more • Lets connect on LinkedIn: bit.ly/3i8wFBd

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