‘Tis the season for your gift-giving holiday of choice — and boy am I over it already!
For those of you still mired in the depths of gift buying, it’s my duty to warn you away from a tech-based gift that is especially hot right now but has chilling implications for its users. (And it’s not any of that infernal Paw Patrol merch!)
Smartwatches for children have been gaining traction over the past couple years, as ways for parents to keep track of their kids in a hands-off way, while they play in the park or walk home from school. These smartwatches are basically stripped-down, wearable phones: some have limited calling capabilities, SOS buttons that a kid can punch in case of emergency, and all have GPS tracking through a paired app on the parent’s own smartphone.
The good news is this is great for reducing helicopter parenting. The bad news is REALLY bad — these watches are incredibly hackable. Information can be intercepted and gleaned in a variety of ways: from remotely initiating an outgoing call, effectively broadcasting the child’s voice and surroundings to a bad actor, to spoofing the watch’s location so the child appears to be in a place they aren’t.
The alarm was raised a year ago by the Norwegian Consumer Council, a watchdog organization, which performed several hacks on four popular watch brands to see how far they’d get. The watches performed miserably enough that Germany, that stalwart defender of personal privacy, banned all children’s smartwatches nationwide. The companies responsible and the industry as a whole made noises about fixing the problems — but an analysis of a new brand of smartwatch has shown that has not happened. Pen Test Partners, a security testing firm out of the UK tested out the Misafes children’s smartwatch, and the Norwegian Consumer Council commented that:
“the MiSafes products appeared to be ‘even more problematic’ than the examples it had flagged [last year].
‘This is another example of unsecure products that should never have reached the market,’ said Gro Mette Moen, the watchdog’s acting director of digital services.
‘Our advice is to refrain from buying these smartwatches until the sellers can prove that their features and security standards are satisfactory.’ […]
The BBC found three listings for the watches on eBay earlier this week but the online marketplace said it had since removed them on the grounds of an existing ban on equipment that could be used to spy on people’s activities without their knowledge.”
But it shouldn’t take the BBC weighing in to let us know this is serious. All I think it takes is common sense — no technology can replace good old-fashioned supervision, combined with the street smarts of a well-trained kid. This season, we need to stick to classic gifts that don’t spy on you. Then, equip our kids with the skills to know their world much better than a plastic watch ever could!