Protecting Your Electronic Gifts

Consider each item on its own...

Are you one of many people who received electronic gifts for Christmas? According to CNBC Alexa-equipped items, Fitbit and Google Home were popular gifts, but there are hundreds of other possibilities. Each device needs to be carefully connected to your home network and that makes it a good time to assess the overall health of the network itself.

One of the NYT Privacy Project authors (the project is a good thing to follow) has a jaundiced view of the electronic gift situation:

So, what to make of all the new data-gobbling devices given by the millions? I’d say cast them into the sea, but there’s far too much plastic there as it is.

While I wouldn’t go that far, I strongly recommend that you consider each electronic item separately, asking whether it’s really necessary to connect it to the internet. Some devices, of course, will lose all their functionality while others may perform basic operations fine. But if connecting to the internet seems desirable, how can the user tell if the device is safe and respectful of privacy? Try Mozilla’s privacy not included list of 70+ popular electronic products. It’s fun to use with the emoji face getting increasingly agitated as the list goes from good to bad. See what it has to say about products you gifted or received.

One popular product provides a good example of the problems—the Ring line of doorbell products. Mozilla couldn’t ascertain whether the Ring products met its security standards. Ring’s privacy policy has been widely criticized, in part because it partners with over 600 police departments to share data. On one hand, that may lead to the apprehension of criminals, just like in the TV ads. On the other, there appear to be no restrictions on how long the police departments can keep the Ring data or any restrictions on how they share it. Ring has many competitors, but I looked at two sets of ratings, including the usual good one from PC magazine, and found that neither review considers privacy as an issue. One product review does note however that a user can check to see what neighbors have reported, so that gives you an insight into the privacy issue.

The usual warnings apply, especially to change default passwords to strong, unique ones and to keep the security software up to date. The Department of Homeland Security has a detailed but pretty straightforward list of ways to secure connected devices. It actually focuses on the security of the home network and that’s an important topic I’m going to cover in the next article.

If you got a new smart phone as a gift, congratulations! Start by making it as secure and private as possible. Here’s a set of recommendations for iPhones and another for Android. Setting up a new phone for best and safest operations is well worth a little time and effort.

And if a new smart TV was one of your holiday acquisitions, be sure you have set it up for maximum privacy.

The gifts you gave should be considered also. For adults, you could share the link to this article or give the advice that you found relevant. For children, I was interested to see that little was written about the hazards of connected toys. I hope that means that toy makers learned from the many issues in 2018. In any event, this article still has relevant warnings and a link to the FTC page on protecting children online.

Remember: not everything that could be connected to the internet has to be connected. It’s a risk/benefit calculation. Do you get enough benefits from the use of this product to justify accepting the general risk that all connected devices can be hacked and any specific risks that accompany the product? Or consider whether you really need the services that product offers. Perhaps you are just as well off without it.

Making good choices and taking a little time to protect your devices will be repaid with more problem-free enjoyment.


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