We’re increasingly littering our homes with smart devices from TVs and fridges to home assistants, known broadly as “the internet of things”. The internet is expanding to include devices that are targeted at parents. They are designed to make parenting easier and safer.
These include the types of products you’d expect (wifi-enabled baby monitors) and a whole range of more surprising objects (remote-operated white noise machines; smart cots that soothe babies to sleep; socks that monitor a baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels; smart toys that get to know their child owner). There are even surveillance systems that read the facial expressions, sounds and movements of babies, with the promise of alerting parents to potential dangers lurking in their little one’s cot.
Many baby monitoring devices work by using facial recognition technology, designed to pick up changes in a child’s expression. If the baby is upset or crying, it will be notified. Some devices may also record happier moments, like a child laughing or smiling, and store them in the manufacturer’s cloud server.
While this is great in theory – a baby is in danger, a parent in another room can be alerted to act, or conversely, a joyful moment that may otherwise be missed is captured and saved – in practice the outcomes can be more perverse.
Design can be intrusive
Smart baby monitors use artificial intelligence (AI) systems to recognise a baby’s activity. These AI systems can be trained using databases of baby faces or cries. The more data the system has, the better it works.
The Washington Post reports that many smart monitors will feed original footage they collect back into the AI systems that power them, improving the product’s capabilities. A smart baby monitor’s customer isn’t just a family member; they are also part of the product.
These devices are made to function by monitoring and collecting data from private household spaces. Samantha Floreani of Digital Rights Watch says: “Many of these devices are data-extractive and invasive by design, without adequate privacy or security protections.”
Data can be used in many other ways. “It’s also about who they might sell that data to, how it might be combined with other datasets, and what happens if that company has a data breach,” she says.
Meanwhile, the American Association of Paediatrics “does not recommend using video or direct-to-consumer pulse oximetry monitors [such as smart socks and smart vests] as a strategy to reduce the risk of a sleep-related death” and flags overall concerns about these products’ accuracy and reliability.
The global baby monitor market is expected to reach $1.63 billion by 2025 and the smart toys market to reach $18 billion by 2023. Smart monitors in Australia are becoming more common and cost between $50-200. Other, more advanced devices can cost many times as much.
So not only are parents paying a premium for products that aren’t proven to have health or safety benefits for babies, they’re having data harvested from the most intimate parts of their lives when they do so.
Data to last a lifetime
There are real concerns about what companies do with their data, and what will happen to it in the future. The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner notes that companies often keep data collected from smart home devices in perpetuity, “in case” it becomes useful at a later date
Considering baby monitoring devices begin storing data about a child from birth, and in Australia there are no current legal or regulatory provisions for personal right to erasure, or how long a company can store data, or what data can be kept, it is possible data captured by a baby monitor will be knocking around somewhere for the rest of a child’s life, with unknowable consequences.
However, there are some consequences that can be seen. The most obvious is future manipulation by advertisers. “The data that a single device collects might seem benign on its own, but when you combine this with other devices and the data that they collect, it can … paint a very clear picture of your life, habits, relationships and behaviours,” Floreani says.
Over the course of a child’s lifetime, that picture can give advertisers an insurmountable advantage, translating into the power to manipulate preferences and behaviours, ultimately undermining personal choice.
The profiles built from data collected from the cot, and throughout a child’s life, may also have impacts on their social and economic participation. The World Economic Forum warns that the on-selling of data to third parties, and ongoing profiling, could result in discrimination later in life – for instance, when applying for jobs or bank loans, all based on past “actions conducted in the privacy of the family’s home”.
Babies and children can’t give consent to privacy notices or being monitored. It is difficult for parents and children to understand what they have agreed to when there are inconsistencies across the board regarding privacy notices or rules.
Security weak link
All the issues mentioned above apply when data is being legally used. Following the high-profile data breaches at Medibank, MyDeal and Optus, there are no assurances the information these devices collect won’t fall into the hands of malicious third parties.
It is also possible to hack directly into the devices. Wired last year reported that millions upon millions of web cameras and baby monitors were at risk from hackers due to software found in more than 83m devices. The software had weak security protections, which could allow “an attacker [to] watch video feeds in real time, potentially viewing sensitive security footage or peeking inside a baby’s crib”.
Floreani points out that even one weakly protected smart device can cause a weak link in a home’s security. “If the security is weak, it could act as a gateway for hackers to access other devices on your network,” she says.
Another cautionary tale to consider is My Friend Cayla. The early smart doll used facial and voice recognition to function, but was accessible to anyone within 30 feet (nine metres) of the toy if they had downloaded the app that controlled it – meaning anyone nearby could listen in to the user through the toy. This security flaw was exposed and the doll was made illegal in many countries.
But Floreani is careful to point out that the responsibility for smart devices in the home isn’t a personal one. “While I think we should always think critically about the kinds of digital technologies we invite into our homes, we also need stronger regulations in place to ensure that devices are meeting security standards and that companies are respecting our privacy.
“Individuals shouldn’t have to go to great lengths or opt-out of using devices altogether to protect their privacy,” she says.
Baby monitoring devices profit from parents’ insecurity and fears, and amplify those fears to sell their products. But the companies that develop and sell baby monitoring devices are far less likely to be concerned with a child’s privacy and security than the families that buy their wares.
Kat George works as a public policy professional and writer. Her work is focused on accessibility and inclusion, consumer rights, regulation, and new technology. Choice and Hope Street Youth and Family Services have her as a non-executive Director. All opinions expressed by her in writing are hers