Security Flaws Highlight Wider Considerations For Businesses

Germany bans kids’ smartwatches

Smartwatches can do so much more than just tell you the time. For their convenience as portable, connected devices, they have become hugely popular with consumers. But recent security issues have revealed a potentially darker side of this technology.

As of November, the German government has entirely banned the sale of children’s smartwatches, classifying them as ‘prohibited listening devices’. These watches enabled parents to listen in on – and even to record – conversations going on in the vicinity of their child. In fact, research showed that parents were indeed using the watches to spy on their children’s teachers. Listening to or recording private conversations without the consent of everyone involved is illegal in Germany, so the government were able to ban this technology on a point of law. However, the watches’ capacity to covertly transmit information is only one troublesome factor.

Security is key

In October, the European Consumer Organisation released a statement alerting parents to security flaws in children’s smartwatches. It was shown that hackers can easily gain access to these devices, enabling them to track the child and even to record video and take pictures. Even more worryingly, it is possible to make the watches send fake GPS coordinates to the app they are linked to – making it seem as if children are somewhere other than where they actually are. The immediate security risk that this represents is clear. However, the way these smartwatches operate also reveals a hidden dark side. Like most kinds of connected technology, smartwatches collect and store huge amounts of data about their users. Parents have no control over the information that is harvested from their child: they are not alerted to the fact that this process is taking place, and have no way of removing existing data that has been collected. If parents are buying this technology for peace of mind about the fundamental safety of their child, there is evidently a big problem. . .

Spying: an ethical issue

The German government’s decision to ban children’s smartwatches was clearly appropriate given the fact that they were being used to break the law. However, this legal aspect of technology use is only one part of the debate. There is nothing to prevent parents from tracking their children using GPS technology, for example, or for companies to collect and store sensitive personal information about the people who use their products. This kind of modern day spying has huge ethical implications. As surveillance technology becomes cheaper we are seeing its widespread integration in all kinds of devices. Take your mobile phone, for example. Most of us know that our smartphones can act as mini spying devices – but many people don’t seem to care. For the moment, the benefits provided to us by this kind of technology far outweigh the potential security risks it represents. But what if our data got into the wrong hands?

Calling time on unrestricted data

As the German example shows, governments are highly conscious of some of the negative aspects of new technologies. But the truth is, they struggle to keep up with the pace of change. Germany was able to ban children’s smartwatches because of an existing law which related to traditional surveillance methods – not because of their security risk to children. It seems that legislators need to pay more attention to the serious business of mass, unauthorised surveillance, and all of the security issues that this entails. One of the most immediate and pressing concerns is gaining greater control around the collection, storage and use of our data.

As connected devices spread into every corner of our lives, technology companies are tightening their grip around our personal data. Items such as smartphones, smartwatches and intelligent personal assistants might be convenient, but consumers are probably not aware that they come at a cost. As individuals wake up to the value of their data – and the need to protect it – businesses making and selling items with surveillance potential may have to pay heed to a changing consumer mood. Technology companies might have got away with exploiting us when we didn’t understand what they were doing, but with multiple high profile hacks in recent years we now know that our data isn’t safe. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

How can we protect ourselves against the exploitation of our personal data? Are the surveillance implications in technology really that much of a big deal? Should the state prohibit any kind of surveillance of children? Comment below with your opinions.