Germany’s equivalent to the FCC, the Bundesnetzagentur, has prohibited the sale of children’s smartwatches with eavesdropping capabilities. The agency is even urging parents to destroy them because they pose a real threat to children’s privacy and the privacy of others. Meanwhile, in the U.S., neither government agencies nor corporations are doing anything to avoid this very real danger to our rights.
“Parents can use these children’s watches to listen in to the child’s surroundings without detection via an app,” according to the German’s Federal Network Agency President Jochen Homann. The German authorities have classified all these watches as “unauthorized transmitting equipment,” citing investigations into “parents [that] were using them to eavesdrop on teachers in lessons.” The threat isn’t just from parents misusing smartwatches, though. These devices have terrible security and privacy policies, from giving third parties access to your child’s usage data without your explicit agreement to forbidding parents from deleting their kids’ data if they choose to.
A few weeks ago, the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) and the security firm Mnemonic issued a strong warning against buying these type of devices, arguing that all of them have privacy issues. European Union regulations ban these privacy practices, but no EU-wide ban has been enacted on these products–yet.
These warnings from Norway and Germany don’t even delve into the fact that all of these devices can be hacked by malicious third parties. Indeed, Germany already banned an internet-connected smart doll called My Friend Cayla, not only because it also was effectively an illegal “concealed transmitting device” but because it could be hacked both to spy on and to interact with kids in terrible ways. And let’s not even talk about the security risk of all that information stored in the cloud–we know that many of these companies just don’t seem to give a damn about data security.
This ban is just the latest and largest warning about the Internet of Things. European authorities were already planning to regulate these wearable devices–the EU thinks these machines have the potential to empower its citizens, but it believes that strong privacy policies should be put in place to avoid putting their rights at risk (you can download its report here). It’s probably only a matter of time before the European Union imposes sanctions against manufacturers making and selling these ill-conceived and poorly designed devices for kids–and adults too.
So, what is the United States doing about it? Nothing. We know that U.S. regulatory authorities like the FCC are quite lax when it comes to privacy, a lack of enthusiasm that is shared by the government spy agencies. Consumers should demand prompt action from lawmakers before it’s too late because it doesn’t seem like designers and corporations are going to do a good job protecting our privacy on their own.
Failing that, we should simply follow the advice of agencies like the Bundesnetzagentur and just stop buying these terrible devices completely–at least until we see strong legislation regulating every single aspect of data collection, storage, and security.