Eric et Ramzy dans la publicité de Noël pour le Portal de Facebook

“Connected” Christmas gifts: cool or creepy?

For the fourth year in a row, the Mozilla Foundation is offering a useful guide to finding your way around the ‘connected objects’ that may be offered at Christmas, by pointing out those that involve risks of non-respect for the privacy of users.

It’s a short and lively commercial, based on colorful emojis set over a cover of a famous Christmas carol. Posted on YouTube at the end of November, the video below is clearly tailored for the holidays, but not necessarily to encourage consumerism: rather, to be careful.

It says: “When it comes to connected gifts, we’ve got some big questions. Like, does it have a privacy policy ? How does it store data ? Does it know I listened to “Last Christmas I gave you my Heart” (Wham) 24 times last night ? Holy Santa Claus, is it watching me right now ??? This holiday, Mozilla’s got you covered, so you know whether your gift is cool, or creeepy”.

This commercial promotes the Privacy Not Included site (French version here), name chosen in reference to the “batteries not included” warning on electronic products placed under the tree, but essential for their operation. This “buying guide for safe and secure connected objects” is an initiative of the Mozilla Foundation, well known to the free software community, and to which we owe in particular the Firefox web browser.

136 objects listed

For four years, Mozilla has been renewing this guide to warn about the potential dangers of certain connected gadgets. “Device connectivity raises privacy concerns, recalls stories of corporate or government espionage, and unsolicited data collection. And you don’t want to be responsible for bringing all of that into someone’s home, right ? Since these gifts could end up being in the living room or the bedroom or on someone’s wrists for months, even years, the choice of such purchase should not be taken lightly, summarizes the specialist journalist Stephen Moore on the Debugger Medium site to explain such an initiative.

The gadgets reviewed by the site are classified by gradation in terms of “creepy”, from harmless to very risky, and categorized according to their use (home automation, games and toys, pets, connected clothing, office automation, entertainment, etc.).

At the time of this article’s publication, 136 objects have been listed on Privacy Not Included, but Internet users can suggest missing articles to check, the site being regularly updated. They are also encouraged to rate their creepiness.

La flippante sonnette connectée d’Amazon 

Among products from well-known brands considered “super creepy”, we can mention Ring, the “connected doorbell” from Amazon. “With Ring Video Doorbell 3, see and hear anyone on your doorstep, and talk to them wherever you are. Receive instant notifications when a visitor presses the button on your doorbell or triggers motion detectors”, boasts the famous e-commerce site. Privacy Not Included informs us that, even if efforts have been made in recent months to correct certain shortcomings (in particular the abandonment of facial recognition suspected of racist bias), Ring still raises concerns, in particular by its relationship to the forces of law and order in the U.S. “Ring gives authorities access to videos captured via its camera through its Neighbors Public Safety Service (NPSS)”, Privacy Not Included reminds us.

In early October, the Bloomberg report below referred to “how Amazon’s Ring contributed to a police surveillance network”:

In early November, the mayor of Jackson town, Mississippi, even asked his fellow citizens to connect their “smart doorbells” to a real-time surveillance center in order to fight crime. According to the BBC, “the mayor announced that video streams would only be observed if a crime was committed in the area”, prompting an outcry from privacy associations. Amazon then specified that it was not a partner of such an initiative. After a summer marked by extreme mistrust of law enforcement following the death of George Floyd killed by a police officer, Amazon finds itself in a juggling act, torn between its real links with the police and its progressive pro-Black Lives Matter movement image.

Facebook, this “usual suspect”

Besides Amazon’s doorbell camera, Privacy Not Included is not kind with a more than topical product in this year of widespread social distancing: the Portal product range, by Facebook, used for video conversations thanks to “a camera using artificial intelligence to track your every move, with a microphone based on Alexa technology [Amazon’s voice assistant] constantly listening to what is said in your home”. Reassuring ! And Facebook is not skimping on promotion during this end-of-year period, by adapting its communication to various markets. In France, Eric Judor and Ramzy Bedia “embody” the brand in a series of offbeat commercials:

While Privacy Not Included welcomes the fact that calls through Portal are encrypted (a secure way to communicate theoretically preventing third-party eavesdropping), the site recalls Facebook’s inglorious privacy record. “Facebook declares that no words spoken in a call via Portal can be used for targeted advertising, but data on your uses of Portal – the frequency of your calls, the applications used, etc. – can be used for targeted advertising on Facebook, the site says.

Incentive from the cradle

Beyond the characteristics of a particular product, the Privacy Not Included initiative has the merit of reminding us to what extent the “Internet of Things” echoes with “threats to privacy”. A mission far from being useless during this holiday season which sees even the little ones, from the age of 9 months, being conditioned to accept the presence of voice assistants in their home, like this Fisher Price product seen in a store by an Internet user:

Of course, this “First Vocal Assistant” is an early learning toy that works without an Internet connection. But this “fun way to keep the little talkers busy by offering them exciting interactive activities”, as its manufacturer praises, nonetheless remains an early incentive to the use of intrusive technology, now standardized from a very young age.

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