Nobody needs a smartwatch. But for parents, they can be tempting. Loaded with GPS and a cellular data chip, they can both track a child and offer them a way to communicate in emergencies–without handing them the full dopamine drip that is the modern smartphone. In turn, the market research firm Gartner believes that by 2021, 30% of smartwatch sales may be for children.
But according to a new report put out by the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) and the security firm Mnemonic, recently featured on BoingBoing, parents should think twice before purchasing kid-friendly smartwatches like the Gator or Xplora. Why? The watches and their connected apps tend to disregard fundamental opt-in agreements to sharing data–meaning there’s no legal pact between the user and the company holding their data. Crucially, none of the investigated watches allowed you to delete your child’s data or ensured that marketers couldn’t use that data to sell something to your child. Nor did they make it clear where all of this data was being stored. These practices aren’t just crude or careless; depending on a country’s privacy laws, they can actually be illegal.
Worse still, the report’s authors worry that the watches imbued a “false sense of security” in their users. Smartwatches for children tend to feature an SOS button, allowing a child to tap it in case of emergencies to share their location, or geofencing, which alert a parent if a child leaves a designated boundary. But in fact, these features proved “unreliable” in the NCC’s real-world testing. It’s a nightmare scenario; imagine if your iPhone could only call 911 successfully some of the time. And in this case, neither the parent nor the child may have any feedback that these security measures even failed.
Unfortunately, poor privacy, security, and reliability are all par for the course when it comes to hardware startups. The Apple Watch and Google’s Android Wear devices were not listed as part of this report, and likely for good reason: Privacy is by no means a solved problem for the big players of Silicon Valley. But as a rule of thumb, billion-dollar tech companies are still going to both disclose how they use your information and protect that data more than the average small hardware startup. If nothing else, the big corps at least have the expertise to do so–and a lot more to lose if they don’t.