Don’t give the gift of corporate surveillance this Christmas

Amazon / WIRED

It’s Christmas time, there’s need to be afraid. For 2019’s modern consumer there’s a plethora of Christmas gifts that you could pick to give your family and friends: self-cleaning craft brew machines, stylish commuter bags, and folding sporks are just some of the options.

Among the products available though, there’s one category of product that you should think twice about before gifting this Christmas. They’re items that enable corporate surveillance. Smart devices that send data back to their corporate motherships. As the number of connected items increase there’s a certain level of normalisation of devices around us that can record (via audio, video and still images) our movements.

While technology such as smart speakers and surveillance cameras can help to improve security and increase convenience, they also come at a cost. The data that’s collected can be used to train the algorithms of the large companies behind the products. AI will improve but those algorithmic enhancements can also be used in other products or services within the company.

In worst case scenarios the data that you provide to services can become key to their business model. Anonymised information can be packaged up and sold to third party companies, helping the original product maker make more money.

As a result, you should put some serious thought into buying people gifts that have the potential to collect data about them. If you are going to buy one of the below presents for someone, the very least that you can do is ask them first. It’ll remove an element of surprise but checking they’re comfortable with the privacy trade-offs that come wrapped inside is one extra kindness you can give.

DNA testing kits

During the buildup to this year’s festive shopping period there’s been an increase in the number of adverts for home DNA testing kits. Their promise? To help you trace your family history and tell you whether you may have any underlying genetic conditions. At the start of 2019, more than 26 million people had added their DNA to the databases of the four biggest companies in the area.

But there’s been scrutiny of what the companies do with your data once your tests have been completed. There’s a secondary business model. Leading the way, both in terms of sales and marketing, has been 23andMe. Last year the US-based company struck a deal with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline: it allowed the company to have exclusive rights to 23andMe’s customer data for drug development. Previously the DNA firm had shared (sold) consenting customer data with more than six other health and tech companies.

When you’re buying DNA testing kits, the user isn’t just getting information about their history, they’re also having their sensitive genetic history passed to companies that are looking to exploit that data to help increase their profits.

Connected doorbells and CCTV cameras

Ring is winning the race to connect our homes. The Amazon-owned company produces smart doorbells and security cameras, which have found their way into thousands of homes across the US. The systems, which can sit on the front of your house, are internet connected. When a doorbell is pressed they start recording footage and can send it directly to a pre-defined mobile phone. Some setups instantly start recording and store video footage on Amazon’s servers when they detect any movement.

Ring says the technology can help to keep people’s homes safer from crime. But the company has also partnered with law enforcement groups around the world. In the US it has struck deals with more than 400 police departments and in the UK the number is growing. It has given four police forces doorbells to hand out to residents and offered product discounts to five others. In return the police forces have promoted Ring devices.

The proliferation of the devices, those from other manufacturers are also available, highlight how smart city technologies are creeping into everyday life and the normalisation of data collection.

Smart speakers

Amazon’s first Echo smart speaker burst on to the scene almost six years ago now – it was released in the US in March 2014. Since then every company from Google to Facebook and Sonos to Lenovo have brought out their own devices. Now smart devices come fitted with screens and voice assistants can be put in almost anything – including microwaves.

In the US more than 118 million smart speakers have been sold, according to analysts. This summer, Apple, Amazon and Google were forced to backtrack on how much voice information contractors could access. It was found humans were listening to recordings of people speaking to their devices and sensitive data has been disclosed.

Apple issued a rare apology saying it would “no longer retain audio recordings of Siri interactions” by default. Google and others followed suit, making privacy enhancing changes.

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