Tech gifts that respect your privacy (and some that don’t)

Jamie

Jamie is always hungry. He also writes about digital privacy in exchange for sandwiches.

A gift box with a white ribbon and red wrapping paper with crossed-out eye symbol.

In the whirlwind season of Black Friday sales and Christmas deals, it can be hard to resist the ridiculous savings on Amazon Ring cameras or various home assistants.

But with more people considering their privacy when buying products and services, the requirement for a secure product that doesn’t leech off your data is becoming a more important factor in purchasing devices.

Don’t be creepy

We regularly come across articles that look at products that are spying or eavesdropping on users, but less often do we see the question flipped to: Which tech gadgets protect your privacy and security while you’re using them?

Drawing attention to popular products on both sides of the privacy spectrum is Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included list, which in its third year has analyzed dozens of devices ranging from headphones to pet feeders. The list checks products against its own minimum security standards and also delves into how your privacy is handled by the product. Users are also invited to vote on how creepy they think the product is.

We take a look at the products that were labeled “not creepy” to explore their privacy credentials.

1. Gaming consoles

As of now, topping the “not creepy” list is the Nintendo Switch. Not only does it encrypt all your data in transit and at rest, but it also has a very user friendly privacy policy and says it won’t share your Switch data with third parties for commercial or marketing purposes. There may be games that do, though, so just be wary of that.

There is an infrared camera that’s used for a few games and can, within a very limited range of the console, track the Joy-Con controllers locations, but it doesn’t have GPS tracking (much to the chagrin of those who have had the misfortune of losing theirs).

2. Speakers

Sonos’s growing range of speakers has long featured AI voice assistant functions, but this year the company released a speaker that removed that function, called the Sonos One SL. Controlled over Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth, this speaker encrypts the device and all its communications with other devices. There’s no built-in mic, so you can rest assured that no one will be able to eavesdrop on you.

3. Pet trackers

It may seem a little contradictory to have a tracker in this list. But if it’s to find a pet that has a tendency to wander off, that peace of mind would be worth the privacy risk of having a GPS tracker. Mozilla’s least creepy pet tracker is Findster, which encrypts the location data and can keep tabs on pets for up to three miles.

The main hesitation we have here is that Findster sells or shares aggregated, de-identified data with anyone. As we’ve written before, anonymized data can still be used to identify you if there is enough data. If Findster gets around to doing that or is more transparent about how it scrambles your data, then I’d be less hesitant to give this item a thumbs up.

4. Coding kits

If you have a child or just want to dip your toes into beginners’ coding, Kano tops Mozilla’s list as a kids’ coding kit that not only makes coding feel instinctual but also does so without sharing your personal information with third parties.

The company does aggregate your data and anonymize it for customer research and profiling, according to its privacy policy. Like with Findster, this data could be used by someone determined enough to figure out who you are. The Harry Potter kit, for instance, comes with a wand that recognizes your movements and compares them with their database via machine learning(!), but that stops as soon as you put the wand down.

5. Headphones

We can’t get behind any of the headphones on Mozilla’s list, unfortunately. The best-rated “not creepy” headphones are the Sony WH-1000XM3, but that still has built-in access to Alexa and Google, which puts us off. There’s just something odd about wearing headphones that listen to you all the time.

The AI assistant function seems difficult to avoid these days in wireless headphones though, so your best bet would be to get a pair of headphones or earphones that require you to manually activate a voice assistant with the press of a button (yes, that includes those Apple EarPods that come with your iPhone).

Not enough choice for privacy-conscious consumers

If Mozilla’s list is any indication of the state of privacy and security on our smart devices, then the majority of them still leave much to be desired. Even the least creepy products contain built-in mics and send de-personalized data to their makers.

There are also not enough lists positively encouraging the purchase of products that respect user privacy and security. For instance, we found it difficult to search for high-quality headphones that didn’t have a voice assistant function built into its headphones. Maybe if the absence of these eavesdropping features became a more obvious selling point, companies may be more inclined to actually respect user privacy and security.

The devices listed above are only some we picked from Mozilla’s full list, which you can view here. And if you’re short on time, don’t worry—there are always these last-minute gifts you could get for that special privacy-conscious someone.

Jamie writes about current issues concerning digital privacy and security and is known to interview leading figures in tech. He also keeps an eye on changes in government censorship and surveillance.