The privacy risks hiding in your holiday gifts – Los Angeles Times
Buying a holiday gift is a bit of a gamble, and not just because it may be ill-fitting or unwanted. Thanks to the advent of interconnected, “smart” products and services, your gift may pose a threat to a friend or loved one’s privacy.
Interactive toys and gadgets often collect a boatload of data about their users and their surroundings. Device manufacturers may convert the information into dollars by selling it to advertisers or data brokers. And even manufacturers that pledge never to share what they collect can’t guarantee that hackers won’t grab the data anyway.
You might think that we Californians don’t have to worry about this, having voted in 2020 to adopt the country’s most extensive data protections. But those safeguards apply only to websites, not to the devices in your home, car or purse.
Jen Caltrider, lead author of the Mozilla Foundation’s Privacy Not Included guide, said the privacy issues raised by smart devices range from the annoyance of targeted ads shadowing you around the web to the physical threat of someone stalking you with the help of a poorly designed Bluetooth tagger. There’s also the chance that weak data security by the manufacturer could allow criminals to steal your personal information or hack into the stream of information sent to and from the device.
Noting how even the biggest companies have a record of data breaches, Caltrider said, “It’s just inevitable that data’s going to leak. … Anything that’s next to the internet is just not safe.”
Granted, that’s the perspective of someone who spends her workdays reading privacy policies and pondering worst-case scenarios for the sake of an annual guide to privacy risks. Others may feel that the convenience offered by smart products outweighs the potential loss of privacy if things go wrong. We all strike our own balance.
Still, you’ll want to consider things like Wi-Fi connections, data collection practices and recording capabilities of the items you put on your holiday shopping lists. Here are some questions to ask yourself, based on suggestions from Caltrider and other privacy experts from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumer Reports.
Does the device connect to the internet?
A good starting point is to ask whether a gift you’re weighing has the ability to connect to the internet or a home network. If it doesn’t, that eliminates a huge number of potential privacy problems, said Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy on the EFF’s activism team.
You may lose crucial features, though, if you turn a smart device into a dumb one. So the next question to ask is: Are the web-enabled features essential? Your answer could be different from the one offered by your sister, your uncle, your niece or whoever else you may have in mind for this present.
Consider the case of a smart home door lock. You might think a front door lock that can be opened from afar with an app — to allow packages to be delivered inside instead of left on your porch, or to let a neighbor water your houseplants while you’re at the Grand Canyon — is a great leap forward. Your sister might think it’s a pointless and risky technological flex. She might like the idea of a deadbolt that can be unlocked without a key, but only if it relies on a fingerprint or a Bluetooth app, not a …….