Holiday gifts getting smarter, but creepier when it comes to privacy and security

A Hamilton Beach Smart Coffee Maker that could eavesdrop, an Amazon Halo fitness tracker that measures the tone of your voice, and a robot-building kit that puts your kid’s privacy at risk are among the 37 creepiest holiday gifts of 2020 according to Mozilla.

holiday gifts privacy

Researchers reviewed 136 popular connected gifts available for purchase in the United States across seven categories: toys & games; smart home; entertainment; wearables; health & exercise; pets; and home office.

They combed through privacy policies, pored over product and app features, and quizzed companies in order to answer questions like: Can this product’s camera, microphone, or GPS snoop on me? What data does the device collect and where does it go? What is the company’s known track record for protecting users’ data?”

The guide includes a “Best Of” category, which singles out products that get privacy and security right, while a “Privacy Not Included” warning icon alerts consumers when a product has especially problematic privacy practices.

Meeting minimum security standards

It also identifies which products meet Mozilla’s Minimum Security Standards, such as using encryption and requiring users to change the default password if a password is needed. For the first time, Mozilla also notes which products use AI to make decisions about consumers.

“Holiday gifts are getting ‘smarter’ each year: from watches that collect more and more health data, to drones with GPS, to home security cameras connected to the cloud,” said Ashley Boyd, Mozilla’s Vice President of Advocacy.

“Unfortunately, these gifts are often getting creepier, too. Poor security standards and privacy practices can mean that your connected gift isn’t bringing joy, but rather prying eyes and security vulnerabilities.”

Boyd added: “Privacy Not Included helps consumers prioritize privacy and security when shopping. The guide also keeps companies on their toes, calling out privacy flaws and applauding privacy features.”

What are the products?

37 products were branded with a “Privacy Not Included” warning label including: Amazon Halo, Dyson Pure Cool, Facebook Portal, Hamilton Beach Smart Coffee Maker, Livescribe Smartpens, NordicTrack T Series Treadmills, Oculus Quest 2 VR Sets, Schlage Encode Smart WiFi Deadbolt, Whistle Go Dog Trackers, Ubtech Jimu Robot Kits, Roku Streaming Sticks, and The Mirror

22 products were awarded “Best Of” for exceptional privacy and security practices, including: Apple Homepod, Apple iPad, Apple TV 4K, Apple Watch 6, Apple Air Pods & Air Pods Pro, Arlo Security Cams, Arlo Video Doorbell, Eufy Security Cams, Eufy Video Doorbell, iRobot Roomba i Series, iRobot Roomba s Series, Garmin Forerunner Series, Garmin Venu watch, Garmin Index Smart Scale, Garmin Vivo Series, Jabra Elite Active 85T, Kano Coding Kits, Withings Thermo, Withings Body Smart Scales, Petcube Play 2 & Bites 2, Sonos SL One, and Findster Duo+ GPS pet tracker

A handful of leading brands, like Apple, Garmin, and Eufy, are excelling at improving privacy across their product lines, while other top companies, like Amazon, Huawei, and Roku, are consistently failing to protect consumers.

Apple products don’t share or sell your data. They take special care to make sure your Siri requests aren’t associated with you. And after facing backlash in 2019, Apple doesn’t automatically opt-in users to human voice review.

Eufy Security Cameras are especially trustworthy. Footage is stored locally rather than in the cloud, and is protected by military-grade encryption. Further, Eufy doesn’t sell their customer lists.

Roku is a privacy nightmare. The company tracks just about everything you do — and then shares it widely. Roku shares your personal data with advertisers and other third parties, it targets you with ads, it builds profiles about you, and more.

Amazon’s Halo Fitness Tracker is especially troubling. It’s packed full of sensors and microphones. It uses machine learning to measure the tone, energy, and positivity of your voice. And it asks you to take pictures of yourself in your underwear so it can track your body fat.

Tech companies want a monopoly on your smart products

Big companies like Amazon and Google are offering a family of networked devices, pushing consumers to buy into one company. For instance: Nest users now have to migrate over to a Google-only platform. Google is acquiring Fitbit.

And Amazon recently announced it’s moving into the wearable technology space. These companies realize that the more data they have on people’s lives, the more lucrative their products can be.

Products are getting creepier, even as they get more secure

Many companies — especially big ones like Google and Facebook — are improving security. But that doesn’t mean those products aren’t invasive. Smart speakers, watches, and other devices are reaching farther into our lives, monitoring our homes, bodies, and travel. And often, consumers don’t have insight or control over the data that’s collected.

Connected toys and pet products are particularly creepy. Amazon’s KidKraft Kitchen & Market is made for kids as young as three — but there’s no transparency into what data it collects. Meanwhile, devices like the Dogness iPet Robot put a mobile, internet-connected camera and microphone in your house — without using encryption.

The pandemic is reshaping some data sharing for the better. Products like the Oura Ring and Kinsa smart thermometer can share anonymized data with researchers and scientists to help track public health and coronavirus outbreaks. This is a positive development — data sharing for the public interest, not just profit.

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