By Robert Porter
It may well be the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the time of year where you may be gifted – or planning to gift – an internet connected device that connects to the “Internet of Things.” The explosion of the IoT marketplace has led to the creation of the “smarthome,” which can contain everything from smart speakers, smart TVs, smart mattresses and smart kitchen appliances: all promising to turn everyday life into a tech-assisted utopia reminiscent of The Jetsons.
That’s what the advertising suggests, anyway. The main selling point of these IoT devices is “convenience.” The ability of a smart speaker or home assistant such as Amazon’s Echo, Google Home, and Apple’s HomePod, or Facebook’s Portal to set thermostats, check the weather, entertain the kids, or play music, is the initial draw for many consumers. The problem is, there’s a catch. There’s always a catch. In our efforts to enjoy living in the future, and passing on responsibility over petty things like adjusting the thermostat to smart devices, we have all forgotten about what tech corporations want and get out of this arrangement: their own corporate-built, consumer-sustained surveillance network.
In recent years, data practices of these corporations have come under closer scrutiny, and the consumer’s right to privacy has become a much-discussed issue. The fact is, the security of all of these interconnected devices is – generally speaking – woefully lacking, which is not a desirable trait when you realize that these devices are witnesses to the most intimate and private moments of consumers’ lives. The IoT marketplace is inundated with devices that are not only insecure and unencrypted, but are often designed to collect as much data from consumers as possible.
While IoT devices can provide a sense of interconnectedness and offer certain increased conveniences of modern living, the fact is that they are designed to collect vast amounts of private data from users the privacy of their own home – often without any technical safeguards or informed consent. Many of these devices are always listening to respond to a “wake word,” and when the camera is enabled, it’s always watching. That’s not even counting the instances of contractors hired by the tech corporations to review audio recordings hearing confidential information.
Smartwatches and fitness trackers are marketed as a one-stop-shop for users to access their biometric data and exercise stats, or connect with friends via social media. Many smartwatches for kids are advertised as a method for parents to locate their children via GPS. The issue arises when these wearable tech gadgets send unencrypted data to company servers, meaning not only that a corporation is collecting all of this biometric and location data, but also that the data transfer is insecure and vulnerable to hacking. Germany has gone so far as to ban the sale of certain smartwatches advertised to children, and has labelled them as spying tools.
So as a concerned consumer, what is the best course of action? Are any of these devices safe to use from a privacy and security perspective? Are they safe for kids to use? Should you just avoid IoT devices at all costs?
What if you really want to gift some tech this year? Then never fear! The Mozilla Foundation has developed a Shop Safe holiday gift guide for the tech-inspired shopper to help ensure that the tech under the tree is safe and secure as well as connected. Ranked against Mozilla’s minimum-security requirements, they have ranked over 70 popular IoT devices from fitness trackers to wireless headphones on a sliding scale of “Not Creepy” to “SuperCreepy.” Each entry contains a rundown of how it stacks up against the security requirements, and answers questions such as “can it snoop on me?,” “how does it handle privacy?,” and “what could happen if something went wrong?”
No matter your decision regarding IoT gifts this Christmas season, try to ensure that you have some tech-free time. You don’t have to host Christmas on Walden Pond, but take a few moments to admire the lights on the tree rather than the ones coming out of your smartphone.