Apple Watches, Amazon Alexa Listens — A Tech Privacy Gift Guide

Santa Clause gesturing for you to be quiet.

It’s very naughty to ask about Santa’s privacy policy.
photo: Roman Samborskyi (Shutterstock)

It’s hard to believe, but 2022 is almost over, and that means it’s time to start thinking about holiday shopping. If gadgets are on your shopping list this year, you might want to consider that when you give a tech gift you’re also giving a present to the tech industry: mountains of your loved-ones’ personal data.

Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser, just released a privacy minded holiday gift guide examining the data practices of 75 of the year’s hottest tech gadgets. The list includes the Apple Watch, Amazon Echo, Google Pixel Watch, Steam Deck, Sonos Speakers and the Meta Quest Pro. The findings were dismal. More gadgets are targeting kids’ data than ever before, and Mozilla says recent company acquisitions in the tech industry mean even more information will make its way into the hands of companies like Amazon and Google.

“We’re living through an unprecedented explosion of connected products,” said Misha Rykov, a Mozilla privacy researcher, in a press release. “There are now children’s toys, litter boxes, sunglasses, and vacuums that connect to the internet—and then scoop up and share precious personal information.”

Products from Amazon, Meta, Samsung, and Verizon all received Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included warning label, indicating they have serious privacy and security concerns.

No one reads every privacy policy they’re forced to agree to; it would be a full-time job. Mozilla researchers spent an average of 8 hours per product wading through the byzantine policies associated with them. They found that privacy policies are getting far more onerous to users, if you can imagine such a thing. More devices serve up multiple policies you have to agree to for different hardware, apps, and features.

Take the Meta Quest Pro. To read its privacy policies, you’d need to open 14 different tabs in your browser and trudge through more than 37,700 words. That’s 6,747 words longer than A Christmas Caroland it’s written in legalese rather than Charles Dickens’ comforting prose.

The Quest Pro tracks you, your body, your eyes and your emotions in unprecedented ways. Mozilla says it would take almost 5 hours to read all the privacy policies spelling out how Meta, formerly known as Facebook, will use all that biometric dates.

Other products range the privacy alarm bells as well. The Barnes & Noble Nook sends location data to third parties. Why? Who knows (the answer is usually money). While the Samsung Galaxy SmartTag keeps location data closer to the belt, the company maintains the right to use that information data for targeted ads. Amazon says it may use the Echo Dot Kids Edition to come up with personalized shopping recommendations for children.

It’s an especially bad holiday seasons for kids’ privacy, especially when it comes to smart watches. Mozilla looked at four different smart watches marketed to children, which include GPS trackers, cameras and microphones. All four earned Mozilla’s privacy warning. The Verizon Gizmo Watch was especially concerning, as it collects data including your kid’s name, age, gender, email address, text messages and more as their communications are routed through the device.

As tech giants buy up more small companies, privacy problems around holiday tech gifts multiply. For example, Amazon is in the midst of buying Roomba manufacturer iRobot, a company who’s products previously received a “Best Of” designation for above average privacy practices. Google purchased FitBit in 2021, and the company announced that users will soon have to make Google accounts if they want to keep using FitBit products

Mozilla’s findings aren’t all bad news, though. The company found a few products that deserve credit for treating your data with more respect. Garmin turns on privacy features by default for its smart watches and fitness trackers. Sonos actually rolled out its own voice assistant with some privacy protections. Unlike Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, the Sonos voice helper process all your voice data right on your device without sending the data to corporate servers.

The Privacy Not Included buying guide features a lot more products as well. Mozilla launched the data base back in 2017, and there’s information on hundreds of products and apps you can look up. You can see all of it on the Privacy Not Included website.

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