Can we trust smart products?

This year, World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March puts the spotlight on smart products and whether we can trust them.

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Worldwide, an estimated 23.1 billion smart products are in use. From phones to fitness trackers, these products are increasingly becoming part of our daily lives. But concerns about the privacy risks that come with them are also growing.

What are smart products?

Smart products are devices that connect to the internet, and receive, collect and send data.

Smartphones are by far the most common smart device. It’s estimated there are about four billion smartphone connections worldwide, nearly double the number three years ago. In New Zealand alone, there are more than 3.8 million smartphones.

Smart devices promise to make our lives easier. But behind the hype that surrounds this tech, there are unanswered questions about exactly what happens to the data smart devices collect and how it’s used.

Data privacy

Results of a 2016 study by 25 international privacy regulators found 60% of smart products reviewed failed to adequately explain to customers how their personal information was collected, used and disclosed.

A 2018 investigation by Belgium consumer group Test-Achats found nearly half of 19 smart products reviewed had security flaws.

More than 80% of the devices in the study collected the user’s name or email. More than 50% also collected the user’s date of birth, location, address, phone number or a unique device identifier. But most companies (72%) didn’t clearly explain how the user could delete their personal data from the device.

Security flaws also raise the risk of your personal data ending up in the wrong hands. A 2018 investigation by Belgium consumer group Test-Achats found nearly half of 19 smart products reviewed had security flaws. These faults meant hackers could control the device remotely and intercept data being sent.

An investigation by UK consumer organisation Which? also found security flaws in smart toys designed for kids that could allow hackers to connect to the devices. It flagged toys with speakers and microphones as the biggest concern, as they enabled hackers to send messages to children and receive answers back.

What to consider

Before you fork out for the latest smart gadget – whether it’s a smart toothbrush or a security system – you may want to consider whether the benefits outweigh the privacy trade-off you may have to accept.

Whatever the device, take steps to keep your data secure:

  1. Set strong passwords: they make it harder for hackers to get their hands on your information.
  2. Keep your software up to date: just like computers, smart products get updates.
  3. Look for any extra security features available: they’re usually found in the settings.
  4. Submit only the minimum amount of personal data needed: it’s your information so be extremely wary about who you share it with.

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