Whether you’re stringing up Christmas lights, getting out the Menorah, or just enjoying the end of the rollercoaster of a year that was 2020, just about everyone will partake in a bit of capitalist indulgence in December—that’s right, the season of shopping!
And what better gift than the latest piece of tech? Right?
There are *a lot* of options in the tech section of the store catalogue, but their neat minimal packaging will tell you little to nothing about the level of security or privacy protections the device comes with. And as highlighted by one of our founders last year, it’s important to be careful that you are not giving away your privacy with your gifts. Another year may have passed but regulation has yet to catch up with connected products so it’s still a bit of a wild west out there.
Now, we here at Digital Rights Watch love technology, we all use it, and many of our community build it. So we’re not trying to be the privacy Grinch out to steal your techie Christmas! But, it is our whole mission to make sure you know what’s up when it comes to the privacy and security of your information, so you don’t end up giving the gift that no one really wants this year—the gift of ubiquitous surveillance.
So step aside surveillance capitalism Santa! We’re not interested in you seeing us while we’re sleeping or knowing when we’re awake. Here’s our overview of the best and worst tech gift options this year.
The Naughty List
Or, for those who have “dystopian hellscape” on their wishlist this year.
When Amazon released its fitness tracker, Halo, back in August it attracted quite a lot of attention and controversy, especially from the privacy community.
Halo will track the usual (steps, heart rate, calories), but it also uses machine learning to measure and analyse the tone, energy and positivity of your voice, which it can hear all the time thanks to the built-in microphone. Why? To “maintain relationship health” which basically means Amazon will tell you if you sound like a jerk. The “lucky” owners of a Halo will also be encouraged by Amazon to take photos of themselves in their underwear so it can take a 3D scan of their body to measure and track body fat. Wild data collection with a side of implicit fat-phobia, anyone? No? Giving Amazon a picture of yourself in your underwear after a second serving of dessert sounds like a truly terrible way to spend the holidays.
This piece of technology is a prime example of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” The issue is less about the security of your information—Amazon knows how to keep your data locked down. It’s much more about what the information could end up being used for. Do you really want Jeff Bezos’ shipping empire to be able to pitch you products based on your current emotional state? We’re going to pass on that, thanks.
KidKraft Amazon Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market
If you are looking to really ingrain some early development capitalism AND surveillance (surveillance capitalism, if you will) into the children in your life, then this is the toy for you. For them. For literally everyone who walks into your home from now on.
“KidKraft brings the magic of make believe to children through the KidKraft skill for Alexa. Kids and families can interact in a safe, imaginative way using their compatible Echo device, including cooking meals, checking out at the grocery store, playing games and more!”
There is something beautifully evil about designing a toy to train kids from an early age to use Amazon products. How poetically dystopian for you to spend your own money getting them used to Alexa being involved every step of the way so they can grow up to be the perfect customer.
All the regular concerns about smart speakers—which FYI, cost extra—remain true in this toy, with the added bonus that it’s specifically designed for kids, so Alexa will be collecting information about the youngest members of your household. Of course the worst part about this gift is just how much it normalises surveillance for kids as young as three.
Dogness iPet Robot
Do you know someone who bought a pet on a whim and doesn’t actually have time to give it the love and attention a living creature deserves? Would they perhaps like having a small robot with a HD camera with night vision roaming around your house to record
anything and everything the adorable antics of the neglected pet? Cool! This one’s for them.
This little robot connects via Wi-Fi (so if your home network is not secure then they might get the added bonus of someone taking over the little bot in their own home, cool), has two-way audio (for all that talking the pet is doing, to be sure). For a gadget that roams their house with a camera and a microphone, there’s very little information available about what happens with the information it collects. So if they like living on the edge and being fast and loose with your privacy, why not?
No actually, please don’t buy this for anyone, this is a nightmare.
A note on smart speakers
People love smart speakers, even though they collect huge amounts of conversations and the privacy risks are well known.
Look, surveillance capitalism is everywhere and continues to seep into every part of our lives. So, even though we love the convenience, we still feel weird about inviting Alexa, Siri or Google Assistant into our homes to extend that reach of data collection further into our lives. Sure, it’s nice to yell at a smart speaker to change the music while you’re elbow deep in cookie batter, we’re just saying it would be nice to do that without feeling like we’re normalising surveillance.
But if you must then we’d be looking for the following features:
- Can you turn off the microphone? Extra points for a physical switch for this!
- Can you adjust the sensitivity of how “far” the device can hear?
- Do you have the ability to choose to share (or not share) your data?
- Is the information that the speaker collects encrypted?
- If the device has a camera, can you cover it or turn it to face away?
Beyond just convenience, for many people – especially older folks or disabled people – these devices can make a difference in people’s quality of life—but it shouldn’t come at the price of their privacy.
We don’t think it should be up to individuals to have an information security degree before going Christmas shopping, but until these products are regulated we must remain at least somewhat informed.
The Nice List
Or, for those who have had enough dystopia for one year.
Stephen King once said, “sooner or later, everything old is
cool new again.” So it’s about time the Tamagotchi makes a comeback!
Super popular in the late 90s and early 2000s, a Tamagotchi is the ultimate unconnected tech toy. With a Tamagotchi you avoid the privacy and security risks, as well was the neglected pet situation mentioned above.
We think a Tamagotchi is the perfect retro tech gift for adults and kids alike. You can get all kinds of new, retro or original ones via Bandai.
Privacy and security subscriptions
Everyone knows that you get what you pay for, and that the free version is never as good, nor privacy and security enhancing. Using a free password manager or VPN (virtual private network) service is good, but it could be better if it was paid for!
You can read about the benefits of a VPN here, and the importance of a privacy manager here. We will never (no really, never) stop talking about how these tools are essential to securing your stuff and protecting your privacy.
Donate to Digital Rights Watch
Yes, yes, we know, we are shamelessly plugging ourselves in this post. But hey, what better way to tell someone you care about them by supporting a civil society organisation that actively fights for their rights all year round?
When you donate to Digital Rights Watch, you’re supporting us to shape Australia’s digital policy, develop resources, run campaigns and build a community. We reckon that’s pretty cool. Donate here.
Have you been naughty or nice? Either way
Santa Big Tech is going to know about it.
In all seriousness, the standard advice is to do your research before you buy the latest tech gadget or toy. This is technically true, and we do think it’s important to be aware of what information is being collected, what’s happening with it, and where it is being shared so that you can make smart choices. However, if you want to know what’s really on our wishlist for this year? Robust privacy and security protections becoming so normalised and regulated that we don’t have to worry or think about it. Now that would be a Christmas miracle.
For a detailed shopping guide for connected gadgets, check out this guide from Mozilla.