Citing that country’s strict laws against unauthorized video and audio recording, Germany’s government has banned smart watches marketed to children and ordered parents to destroy the devices, which it labeled illegal surveillance tools.
The order, addressed to manufacturers, buyers and sellers of the smart watches, is just the latest from German telecommunications regulator (Bundesnetzagentur) regarding connected play things, which commonly include features that allow parents or others to remotely listen or observe their child’s surroundings.
In a statement, dated November 20, 2017, the agency said the children’s watches contained “eavesdropping” functions that ran afoul of German laws, making them “prohibited listening devices” and “unauthorised (sp) transmitting equipment.”
“Parents can use these children’s watches to listen in to the child’s surroundings without detection via an app(lication),” said Jochen Homann, Bundesnetzagentur President in a published statement. “Our investigations found, for example, that parents were using them to eavesdrop on teachers in lessons.”
A wide range of smart watches packed with features for making and receiving voice calls, GPS tracking and cameras are marketed to children as young as 4 years old. Many, like the Filip support applications like games, but safety and security are promoted heavily as features. Among other things, some smart watch brands allow parents to communicate directly with their children and set up “geo fences” – areas that their children are not allowed out of without generating an alert.
While the two way communications features are marketed to parents (“Changing the way parents and kids stay connected” is the Filip’s tag line), German authorities said there is little daylight between parental monitoring and more harmful surveillance of children and those around them. “The app user is able to make the watch call a desired number unnoticed by its wearer or those nearby,” the Bundesnetzagentur said in a statement. “The user can then eavesdrop on the wearer’s conversations and surroundings. This type of listening function is prohibited in Germany.”
The agency told students to be aware of pupils wearing the devices. The Bundesnetzagentur said individuals who have purchased such devices will be asked to destroy them and send evidence to prove it – such as a certificate of destruction or just photos of the destroyed devices. “It is recommended for parents to take responsibility for destroying the devices themselves and to keep proof of this.”
In September, the same agency issued a broad warning covering a wide range of devices like watches, alarm clocks, smoke detectors, weather stations or lamps, that might be outfitted with hidden cameras or microphones. It has also warned consumers to consider the monitoring capabilities of products like UAVs, smart cars, GSM trackers and more.
This isn’t the first time the German government has taken a strong action to ban a connected toy. In February, the government ordered stores to stop selling the connected doll My Friend Cayla and owners of the toy to destroy the device, which it said was an illegal surveillance device.
Ken Munro of the firm PenTest Partners, which researched the Cayla doll, applauded the moves by the Bundesnetzagentur. Munro told The Security Ledger that manufacturers probably don’t set out to make surveillance devices, but that haste to get a product to market and a lack of security wherewithal results in shipped products that are often indistinguishable from surveillance tools.
A lack of coding and secure product design expertise also introduces risks for parents and children. For example, many smart watches that track the location of the child wearing the device don’t encrypt that data as it is sent to and from the smart watch. That opens the door to attackers who could set up man in the middle attacks to intercept the GPS data and modify it – either to make a missing child look as if they are still present, or to scare parents into thinking that their child has gone missing when they haven’t. “It’s juts a lack of thought about how to send messages could lead to a lot of chaos.”
Munro said that remote communications with children may be a feature that can be implemented in a way that protects security, but the current generation of smart watches don’t clear that bar. “I don’t think the manufacturers sat down and thought through privacy. They didn’t think about how these devices were going to be used,” Munro said. “They haven’t thought through the security.”