Bad Gift Ideas for Privacy

Last year, I wrote a blog post about gift ideas for privacy-oriented people. That list hasn’t changed much, and I’m also a firm believer that failure can be just as good of a learning opportunity as success, so in that spirit let’s take a look at some of the most popular gifts this year according to Google and some privacy-respecting alternatives.

iPads

Tablets are awesome. I had one back in the day and pretty much stopped using my laptop because the tablet made life so easy. But lately, Apple’s commitment to privacy and security are a bit questionable. Instead, I would recommend using a different tablet that gives you more privacy. The most obvious example would be the PineTab, but Lineage also offers some decently powerful tablets if you’re willing to do the flashing yourself. It should be noted that with the PineTab, you may have to resort to bookmarking websites on the home screen rather than downloading actual apps, but otherwise it should essentially work the same.

Ring Doorbells

Smart doorbells also have their merit. One of my past clients when I was a freelancer was located downtown and staffed entirely by women. For the record, I don’t subscribe to gender norms. I’ve met women who could kick my butt and that doesn’t bother me. But these women were not like that. One time an unhoused person entered the building and refused to leave when asked. Ultimately they had to call the cops to have the person escorted out. After that, they expressed an interest in getting a smart doorbell so they could lock the doors, but still know when deliveries and people arrived. The point of this story is that there are legitimate uses for this technology.

Ring is owned by Amazon, and has already been in the headlines several times for not only their privacy practices and sharing data with police, but also for bugs allowing strangers access to your cameras. Unfortunately there’s not really any golden privacy-respecting alternatives when it comes to smart doorbells, but there are ones that suck a lot less. Over at Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included Project, the one I found most appealing based on their summaries is the Netatmo. Locally stored video, company based in the EU for strong data protection laws, and no known data breaches. There are other decent options, but some of them use the cloud. While that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, it is another point of risk that you should be aware of before committing. Some of the ones to avoid on the list are the Nest, Blink, and of course Ring. When reviewing that page, be sure to check what data they record, what they do with it, and their history of data protection.

Fitness Trackers

Some people really want to make sure they get their steps in every day. Or, if you’re like me, you simply wanted to hatch new Pokemon in Pokemon Go. (Yes, I used to play that.) I applaud the desire to be healthy and know what’s going on with your body, but FitBit was recently purchased by Google and now I think we can do better. Once again, we’ll have to turn to Mozilla for recommendations here. The choices are a little worse than the doorbell options listed above, but I guess that’s to be expected when we’re talking about a device that collects intimate health details. It seems your best bets – if you want to avoid Big Tech – are the Garmin products, Whoop Strap, or Oura Ring. If you don’t mind Big Tech, I think the Apple Watch is probably the best choice out of those options. Either way, feel free to browse and make up your own mind. A good section to pay attention to here is the “What could happen if something goes wrong” section. It’s also worth noting that if all you want is to count steps, the PineTime does include a step counter. I personally have not found it to be very accurate, but others have found it to be quite accurate, so your mileage my vary. It works with Android and iOS and it also tells time (of course), heart rate (also varied accuracy), has a few simple games, a stop watch, an alarm, timer, and even a metronome. It can also do things like change the current song and help navigate with maps, depending on your device and app of choice.

Oculus Quest

Point blank: I got nothing here. VR and AR are very much new frontiers in technology, and that means that it's both expensive and there’s really not a lot of good alternatives out there, especially if you’re looking for something open-source and privacy-minded. The best I can offer is that Oculus is owned by Facebook, whose privacy policies and track record can basically be summed up as “lol screw you.” Seriously. I cannot stress enough not only how bad Facebook’s privacy practices and security measures are, but also how downright evil of a company they are. If you must get a VR headset, I strongly encourage you to look into alternatives, like the HTC Vive or Playstation VR (if you own a Playstation console). If none of those solutions work for you, you’re probably best just to pass on this altogether.

Google

As an honorable mention, I wanted to mention “Google anything.” The article I linked at the top has an entire section dedicated to Google products, like Nest doorbells and thermostats (Mozilla has a section for this, too) to Chromebooks. Mozilla likely has alternatives for the popular items in this category, and most of them have already been tackled. The one I haven’t mentioned yet is a Chromebook. The appeal of a Chromebook is that it is an inexpensive but reliable device. It won’t do much (if any) gaming, but it can do all the basics like check your email, watch Netflix, etc. In that spirit, I unreservedly suggest the Pinebook Pro. You won’t be able to do any serious production or gaming on it, but you’ll be able to easily manage documents, surf the net, etc. If you need some better firepower for gaming or production, check out System76 or Purism. It’s also worth mentioning that all of these devices come preloaded with Linux: Debian (Pinebook Pro), Pop!_OS (System76), and PureOS (Purism). These are all basically the same OS with some different under-the-hood tweaks, but for the end user the only real difference should be how they look. They’ll all give you access to the same programs. Using one of these devices will give you significant privacy improvements over a Chromebook or regular PC at a similar price.

Game Consoles & Smart Toys

Last but not least, let’s mention smart toys and game consoles. I’m a casual gamer. I get it. My partner has binged Animal Crossing: New Horizons pretty much since it came out. I myself got super pumped for the release of Jurassic World Evolution 2, and during a work trip earlier this year I got one of my coworkers hooked on Civilization 6. Games are fun, and it’s important to find ways to relax and unwind from the stresses of life. The fact is that in most cases, you’re not going to find a privacy-perfect solution. Sure, some games are available on Linux – like Civilization 6. In other cases, you’re limited to an actual console like a Nintendo Switch or a Sony Playstation, or if you’re a PC gamer you might be forced to use Windows. In these cases, I have some basic advice. First, check to see if Linux is an option. You’d be amazed how often it is. We recently covered a story on the podcast about how something like 70%+ of PC games are now available on Linux. If it’s not available on Linux but it is on Windows, I recommend that as Windows offers far more customization than a console like a Switch or an X-Box. While Windows is very invasive, it’s much easier to dual-boot your computer and restrict some of the telemetry than it would be to do so on a console. Finally, if you must use a console, be sure to examine each setting regularly to disable any data collection possible (the Switch, for example, received an update shortly after launch that added Google Analytics and opted you in by default, hence the need to check often). If it’s an online game or device with network connectivity, I recommend putting a VPN on your router and then connecting devices to that protected network. VPNs only do so much, but every little bit helps.

Conclusion

The worst gift you could give someone – in my opinion – is something they don’t want, need, or use. I don’t need to tell my readers how commercialized and consumerist the holidays have become. Personally, I’m not much for giving or receiving gifts. I’d rather just get together, share a few beers, and spend some quality time together. Before considering any gift, before even considering the privacy or security implications of a gift, I would consider if that gift will actually add value to someone’s life. The best smart thermostat is the one you never get somebody because they never change their thermostat anyways. Instead of just rushing out to buy someone some cool new trinket that will introduce new risks into their life, first ask if they even need this thing. Maybe they’d prefer a gift card. Or a power tool. Or something low-tech like a paper book or a board game. But if you do want to buy something techie for someone in your life and you think their life might be improved by one of those gifts, be sure to vet said gifts for privacy and security. The worst gifts, to me, are the ones that add more work to my life. “Great, this is another thing I have to update, care for, configure, etc.” Make sure that your gift adds more value than work, and make sure it doesn’t put them at risk.

Happy holidays.

You can find more recommended services and programs at TheNewOil.org. You can also get daily privacy news updates at @thenewoil@freeradical.zone or support my work in a variety of ways here.