Mozilla's holiday guide rates tech gifts for privacy practices

In Summary

• The researchers at Mozilla had to comb through privacy policies, analyze each product and the features of the apps before arriving at conclusions.

• Amazon has responded by saying that the Alexa FAQ clearly states that users if they so wish, may opt for Alexa not retaining their recordings.

Illusion of privacy on social media and dating apps
Illusion of privacy on social media and dating apps
Image: STAR ILLUSTRATED

It’s spooky, but some of the connected tech gifts can snoop on you after you’ve welcomed them into your lives.

As a part of its annual “Privacy Not Included” shopping guide, the Mozilla Foundation reveals that almost a third of the popular 151 connected gifts it analyzed didn’t meet even the basic digital security and privacy standards.

The widely used and reputed Facebook portal, Amazon Echo, and Nordic Treadmill was found to be among the 47 worst offenders.

The researchers at Mozilla had to comb through privacy policies, analyze each product and the features of the apps before arriving at conclusions.

Manufacturers were asked to share details of using location tracking, data collection, and other technologies that may infringe on user privacy. The researchers also looked into the track record of each company with regards to the protection of user privacy.

What has the Mozilla Foundation observed?

Jen Caltrider, the lead researcher in the project, observes that the gadgets are getting creepier and more vulnerable to data leaks and security lapses as they get smarter. The fifth annual report from Mozilla comes as the demand for connected products as popular holiday gifts shows no signs of abating.

However, these devices are often found to collect user information that’s personally identifiable, which has later been sold to data brokers to design targeted advertising campaigns. The good news is that not all the products reviewed failed the privacy test.

Mozilla’s “Best Of” list includes 22 products that have made the cut by offering exceptional privacy and security. Apple committed to not sharing or selling consumer data was picked as the “least creepy” big tech company. Garmin scored for being particular about its smartwatches protecting user privacy.

How do the tech Companies fare?

Of all the big tech companies, Mozilla has pointed its fingers at Facebook, re-named as Meta, as the “creepiest.” Since it regularly harvests consumer data, Facebook’s AI-powered portal chat device was singled out as the worst offender.

Mozilla has found that Alexa-powered devices often collect information even if you ask them not to. It’s also observed that the oversight is comparatively less in Alexa Skills, which are third party-created voice-controlled apps and features.

Amazon has responded by saying that the Alexa FAQ clearly states that users if they so wish, may opt for Alexa not retaining their recordings. Even if they do, Alexa deletes the transcripts of the recordings automatically within 30 days. Users also have the option to delete them earlier manually.

Amazon also goes on to say that for security reasons and also as a part of their certification process, all Alexa Skills are thoroughly screened. There’s also continuous monitoring for behavior that may be potentially malicious.

Some devices are of particular concern

With smart home exercise equipment, you can work out in complete privacy at your home instead of in a gym. Or is it private in all aspects? While offering convenience, these tools collect a lot of personal data that may be shared or even sold.

Mozilla has found that the NordicTrack Treadmill is of particular concern. Mozilla says that not only does the company reserve the right to collect and sell your data, it may also gather data from brokers so it can create ads targeted at you. Even if you are on the do-not-call list, you may still receive texts on your phone from them. 

How can users protect themselves?

Indeed! Caltrider notices that some of the tech companies require users to look up complicated documents on multiple websites to form even a rudimentary idea about how their data is being used. Consumers are, therefore, still expected to take the initiative when it comes to protecting their privacy and security when using these connected products.

Thus, they can find all available information about specific products and how they might affect their security and privacy. In other cases, they can choose more private alternatives, like downloading apps that have a better track record with keeping their users’ data safe.

Additionally, they can use applications that are specifically designed to secure their digital lifestyle. A Virtual Private Network is one of the possible solutions. It masks IP addresses and prevents online entities from learning your location from this identifier. Furthermore, it encrypts internet traffic and ensures that online entities are unable to track your behaviour as vigorously.

Conclusion

Mozilla’s research must have opened your eyes to the perils of using connected devices when it comes to your privacy. While some of the companies have indeed been found to take steps to ensure user data privacy, many do not do so well. With privacy becoming more of a privilege than a right, you should take charge of protecting yourself.