From toys to smartphones: Privacy checks for your tech gifts

WASHINGTON — From smartphones to connected toys, many of the gifts given this holiday season come with privacy concerns.

Now that the gifts are unwrapped, the first step should be to determine what information the device will be collecting according to John Verdi, Vice President of Policy at the Future of Privacy Forum. The group is a Washington think tank that focuses on responsible privacy practices.

“It’s super important to check the privacy settings, and drill down in some of those menus to try to figure out exactly which sorts of data you want to share with these devices,” said Verdi.

Many devices not only share information with developers and third parties, but some can also share that information with a user’s social media account that may be linked to the device.

For smartphones, data such as a person’s GPS location, health tracker information, voice recordings and other potentially sensitive information could be sent out if a user doesn’t deny access, according to Verdi.

Verdi recommends that users go through the privacy settings in devices and any apps that are installed to make sure they are comfortable with the information that will be collected and shared.

Newer operating systems for smartphones and tablets have shifted toward easier privacy management, Verdi said, by creating centralized locations on devices for users to manage access.

“You can either grant that permission or deny it from a central place, rather than going app by app and trying to drill down in all those menus,” he said.

When the initial privacy setup is done for a smartphone and its apps, Verdi warns users to not let their guards down, and revisit those privacy settings after it has been used for some time.

“The tough thing is that until you use the app, it’s not super obvious what sorts of data you’re comfortable with the device collecting, using and sharing,” Verdi said.

Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet or another device, Verdi also recommended setting up a new password, passcode or passphrase if that option is available. If the device came with a default password, passcode or passphrase, it should be changed.

“If the device isn’t secure, if there isn’t a password applied to it, or a passcode or passphrase applied to it, then you can really run into trouble with unauthorized access,” Verdi said.

For connected toys, Verdi said it is incumbent on parents and guardians to make good, hygienic digital choices for their kids and to know what information the toy collects and passes on. Verdi said there have been instances where voice recordings and even credit card information, used with a toy, wind up in the wrong hands.

“Just because the device itself looks cute, doesn’t mean that the privacy and security settings are low stakes,” Verdi said.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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