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Privacy Perspectives | A plea to keep surveillance out of the holidays Related reading: Elf on the Shelf and Giving the Gift of Surveillance




You better watch out. You better not cry.
You better not pout I’m telling you why.
Santa Claus sees all that you do.
But it was alright, everything was alright, Christmas was finished. He had won a spot on the Nice List. He loved Kris Kringle.

Another holiday season is almost in the books, and it seems like only yesterday I opined on the incredibly creepy "Elf Surveillance Dummy CCTV Camera." It is a mock device that "thoughtful" parents installed into the ceiling of their children's rooms to create a surveillance state even an Elf on a Shelf would call intrusive.

Since we are in the holiday spirit around here at the IAPP, and because I perhaps hate myself a little bit, I scanned the internet to see if there are other youth-oriented surveillance apparatuses out in the world.

Here's a quick question: If you were to search "santa cam" on Etsy, how many results would you get? A couple hundred? A thousand?

How about 2,127?

If you have the time, you can scroll through 45 pages worth of various ornaments lavishly designed with surveillance lenses and mock CCTV cameras. Some of them have "Santa Cam" in a lovely cursive font. Others allow for personalization. Your child can have their very own CCTV camera brandished with their name (in ALL CAPS) just so they understand Santa has a complete dossier on their activities. Some of the ornaments come with personalized letters. Not only is Santa watching your every move, he even sent written documentation to inform you of his surveillance practices. From the "North Pole Department of Behavioral Investigations" no less!

"Dear Jimmy, This correspondence is to inform you that you have been 'randomly' selected for our Holiday Monitoring Program. If it has been determined that your behavior has been deemed 'naughty,' your gift selection of 'Star Wars Death Star Lego Set' will be withheld. The appeals process will take place never. Ho ho ho, Santa."

(Think Santa Claus can't be a jerk? Watch Rudolph again and get back to me.)

Okay, I don't want to grinch all over your parade, but this really needs to stop. We should not normalize surveillance for a generation who will fight an uphill battle for any semblance of privacy. Nearly every device we own generates mountains of data telling companies where we are, what we are doing, and who we are doing it with. As more households add a cavalcade of internet of things devices, maybe we could refrain from adding one more element of surveillance?

People cannot even buy Christmas gifts in public anymore without someone watching, for crying out loud!

Fortunately, efforts had been made to warn those parents about putting creepy gifts under the tree. Mozilla has once again released a holiday guide to educate the masses on what gifts take  privacy and security seriously, and which ones, quite frankly, don't.

Mozilla grades products based on whether they use encryption, the contents of their privacy policies, whether they share data with third parties, password requirements and parental controls. Top devices include the Nintendo Switch, Amazon Kindle, Sony PlayStation 4 and coming out of left field, the Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit.

One thing to note: Even the top-rated products constantly struggled with their privacy policies. Mozilla docked plenty of products for having privacy policies that are simply too complex. In order to get a good mark, Mozilla believes privacy policies should top out at a high school reading level. You do not want to be, for example, a privacy reporter who wants to goose up his prose by pontificating on erudite aphorisms for the yuletide epoch.

On the other end of the spectrum, the product at the bottom of Mozilla's guide is the FREDI Baby Monitor, which Mozilla states has a "has a history of being easily hacked, uses a default password of "123", and doesn't have a privacy policy." Not to mention FREDI is a super creepy name for a baby monitor. 

Mozilla's resource, the guide from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a rundown from the Guardian all cast wary eyes on smart speakers and in-home cameras. Advocates continue to express their concerns about the amount of data these devices collect, and since some of the companies attached to those devices have had a rough 2018 privacy-wise, their skepticism has only grown.

But this is about the children, isn't it? While concerns around surveillance and IoT devices grows, so have efforts to protect children's privacy, and one of the joys of Christmas is the smile on a kid's face when they open all their new toys. (I'm assuming. I don't have kids.)

The U.S. Children's Online Privacy Protection Act turned 20 years old in 2018. The Federal Trade Commission stated in a blog post to celebrate the anniversary it "continues to be committed to rigorous COPPA enforcement," and that the law has "responded to developments in technology." 

One lawmaker who seems to be intent on holding the FTC to that statement is Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has said on several occasions this year he wants the FTC to take a stronger stance on children's privacy. Perhaps the FTC could look at the $5 million settlement Oath reached with the New York attorney general over COPPA violations.

It is a lot to consider, especially in the holiday season. It may be too late to change your gift-giving plans, holiday decor, or privacy policy, but as you put down some eggnog and debate whether "Die Hard" is a Christmas movie (Lethal Weapon too for that matter), maybe take a second to step back and think about ways to have fewer digital eyes on next year's festivities.

photo credit: joncutrer Christmas Ornaments via photopin (license)

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