The real elf on the shelf may be the tech under your tree - Mozilla releases its list of 2023's creepiest gadgets

 Creepy Christmas Tech.
Creepy Christmas Tech.

Nothing screams first world problems like worrying if photos your robotic vacuum took of you on the toilet might end up on Facebook.

But that's just one of the many reasons to be cautious of the christmas tech you buy this year.

Mozilla has released its annual list of *Privacy Not Included (*PNI) tech that you should make you think twice before buying.

Data is the new oil - and companies are prospecting your home

Every year, Mozilla researchers take a look at some of the top tech in the run up to the holiday season to make sure Big Brother isn’t hiding in your Furby.

This year, Amazon devices have topped the charts in terms of devices that track, listen, and even watch you and your family sleep. From kids toys to home helpers, many devices today are not just cleaning your floor, but also hoovering up information about your home.

And while Amazon may claim that it doesn’t sell your data to third parties, it does sell advertising using the mountains of data about your habits and interests, gathered from what you say to Alexa, what you search for on Prime, and how often you turn on that seemingly inconspicuous smart lightbulb.

A privacy wormhole - sorry, the Meta Portal

Among the devices rated ‘super creepy’ by *PNI readers is the Meta Portal - a several hundred dollar home tablet complete with artificial intelligence, smart camera, and Alexa-powered microphone. Most of the concerns surrounding this device come from Meta and Facebook's damning track record of privacy violations resulting in eye-watering fines in the billions of dollars.

Meta and Facebook both have privacy policies which, whether intentional or not, are incredibly long and confusing - perfect to read during that dreary morning commute. While a home tablet with built-in AI may sound like a premonition for the rise of the robots, most of the functionality of this intelligence is to determine if what the camera is looking at during a video call is a person or a coat stand. Oh, and to keep that filter that makes you look like a dog securely on your face.

But don’t let that overshadow those privacy concerns. Just keep in mind that Facebook set a world record for the largest consumer privacy fine in 2019, when the Federal Trade Commission levied $5 billion against the social media giant for violating consumer privacy.

A sentient furby on wheels - the Amazon Astro

Another device topping the creepy list is the Amazon Astro - an adorable robot assistant that just wants to follow you around and hold your drink for you. But don’t be fooled, while it's adorable, expressional eyes may proclaim innocence, it apparently has the observational capacity of an RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone.

Featuring a camera, microphone and location tracking abilities, the Astro has recently been offered by Amazon as part of a security solution that can detect open windows, patrol warehouses and even phone the police.

While this robot could be the perfect way to terrify your dog into behaving while you’re out of the house, Amazon is most likely using the data it collects to bombard you with even more advertising. Among the many ways Amazon milks the data of anyone who clicks “I accept”, the Alexa enabled Astro can sense when and where you turn your lights on and off, what you watch on TV, and what music you like.

If you’re still interested in having a WALL-E with malicious intent in your home, remember that if it ever rolls towards you with its angry eyes on and a knife in its cup holder - a lack of internet connection or stairs are its kryptonite.

Wyze my device collecting all this data?!

A number of products from smart home company Wyze have also ranked up there with some of the creepiest devices. Affordable home security is an industry that seems to have exploded in recent years, and while putting cameras in every room may protect you from burglars, it does not protect you from aggressive advertising nor your data from being sold.

The main concerns surrounding Wyze products are, of course, privacy and security (surprise surprise). The company has already had a number of security vulnerabilities in its cameras exposed by Bitdefender who in 2022, “found three vulnerabilities that would have given attackers direct access to the cameras, including recordings stored on the SD card."

Wyze also offers a robot vacuum featuring light detection and ranging, otherwise known as LiDAR, which uses a laser to map out your home and stop it from driving through your cat flap and wreaking havoc on your neighbourhood. While this method of vacuum navigation is significantly less intrusive than a conventional camera, if your vacuum is targeted by a hacker they can use LiDAR to listen in on your conversations - even without a microphone.

If, even after all this, you are still set on buying some smart tech for a loved-one (or not so loved), pay attention to what the device could have access to in terms of sight, sound, and the data it collects. And when you accept all those terms and conditions without reading them, keep an eye out for the advert of that one specific toothbrush a co-worker mentioned in passing conversation at the pub last Thursday.

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