A good rule of thumb when it comes to internet-connected toys is not to buy them. Security too often sits too low on the priority list of the companies that make them. But in a new report, Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the popular Firefox browser, has a more finely tuned privacy appraisal of not just toys but dozens of popular holiday gifts—some of which may not rate much better than coal.
Now in its second year, Mozilla’s “Privacy Not Included” guide rates 70 products, ranging from toys to smart speakers to a sous vide, across multiple categories. It’s also rolling out—along with advocacy groups Internet Society and Consumers International—new “minimum security requirements,” and awarding badges to giftables that score high marks.
“We want to provide people information about how to make informed decisions when shopping for gifts that are connected to the internet,” says Ashley Boyd, vice president of advocacy at Mozilla. “These products are becoming really popular. And in some cases, it’s easy to forget that they’re even connected to the internet.”
"We’re trying to give people essentially a way to look at any product and what to look for, what questions to ask."
Ashley Boyd, Mozilla
DJI says that there's no indication that the Spark has ever been hacked, other than intentionally by enthusiasts looking for a performance boost. And to its credit, the company is also proactive in fixing issues that do arise; just last week, it patched an authentication bug that would have allowed hackers to access user accounts.
Anova CEO Steve Svajian says that the company plans to add encryption to the next generation of its product, and is exploring ways to add it retroactively to those already on the market. "We take privacy and security very seriously," says Svajian. "It's crucially important for the community to trust what we do."
The remaining 30 items on the list all exist somewhere in the murky middle, usually because Mozilla was unable to confirm at least one attribute. Which may be the real takeaway from the report: Too often, you have no reasonable way to find out if a given internet-connected device is secure.
“If you can’t tell, that says that there’s a problem of communication between manufacturers and consumers,” says Boyd. “We would love for makers of these products to be more clear and more transparent about what they’re doing and not doing. That’s a big place we think change is needed.”
Mozilla rightly acknowledges that a survey of 70 products shouldn’t be seen as any sort of definitive buying guide. There are thousands of internet-connected presents waiting to be gifted this year, all of them offering a wide range of privacy controls. But that’s not the point.
“The number of products is a drop in the bucket,” says Boyd. “We’re trying to drive a conversation where manufacturers can see that consumers care about this information. We’re trying to give people essentially a way to look at any product and what to look for, what questions to ask.”
At the very least, Mozilla's guide does elucidate what can actually go wrong if someone compromises your gear. Like, say, that sous vide: “Someone could hack your Wi-Fi, crank up the cooking temperature on your sous vide, and over cook your steak,” reads the entry, presenting a worst-case scenario that’s not quite Grade A. Svajian also disputes Mozilla's characterization of how Anova handles customer data; the company uses it for analytics and marketing purposes, but does not and will not ever sell it to third parties.
So yes, Mozilla may be painting with an overly broad brush here. But at least those issues are weighed against the report’s admirable goals. Simply knowing it exists might help consumers think twice about letting an internet-connected camera or microphone into their home, no matter how adorable the teddy bear it’s attached to.
“So much of the news that people are reading about the technology industry is scary. People aren’t clear what to do and how to improve their safety online,” Boyd says. “Consumer products are a great place for people to learn more, because they’re things that people bring into their home. This is a place where people are pretty empowered.”
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UPDATE 11/12/18 12:00PM: This story has been updated with comment from Anova CEO Steve Svajian.