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‘Twas several weeks before Christmas, and Twitter I did check 
When I saw a product for children, that was absolute dreck

It’s the holiday season, and along with the glut of holiday specials, eggnog, and throwing away the lousy Yankee Swap gift (it’s a New England thing, look it up) you were stuck with, comes parents looking for those special presents that will make the season memorable for children around the world.

Christmas also means the return of the “Elf on the Shelf,� the popular plush surveillance doll parents have been using to make sure their kids know that Santa is always watching. While we have covered the privacy implications of this fad a few years ago, it seems Christmas surveillance has now gone to the next level.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the “Elf Surveillance Dummy CCTV Camera.� This mock camera is designed to be installed into the ceiling of your child’s room, creating a reality for kids where Santa not only knows when you are sleeping, and knows when you’re awake, but knows when to flex his hardware budget.

The product, created by the questionably-named Elves Behavin’ Badly, also has a flashing red light just in case your children weren’t already traumatized by an ominous CCTV camera lurking in the corner of their bedroom.

Oh what fun it is to hide from Santa’s Nanny State!

Ok. Much like my colleague, Jed Bracy, CIPP, who wrote the previous article,  I, too, do not have any children, so I am by no means an expert on raising kids. I am sure it is no surprise, given the amount of poorly constructed, amateur, yuletide references that I think this product is terrible.

It also got me thinking about why this product has turned me into such a Scrooge (woof). Can I no longer take a joke? Has working at the IAPP for nearly two years brought my privacy-antennae up permanently?

I would say it is probably the latter.

As smart devices have grown in prevalence, advocacy groups and government agencies have been keeping an eye on technology to ensure the privacy rights of children are protected.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Mozilla Foundation each put out reports warning parents about toys to avoid in the upcoming holiday season. The first group pointed to the “My Friend Caylaâ€� doll as one for parents to avoid buying this year.

“My Friend Caylaâ€� was cited for having a hidden microphone and unsecured Bluetooth connection, which could allow hackers to spy on and communicate with children. This is a toy that Germany’s Federal Network Agency not only banned, but even went so far as to advise parents to destroy the dolls already residing in their homes. And just this week, French data protection authority, the CNIL, publicly served formal notice to Genesis Industries Limited, the maker of “My Friend Cayla” and the robot “I-Que,” due to a lack of data security measures. 

The Mozilla report dinged a pair of Star Wars toys and an Adidas soccer ball for similar problems, and for storing data they collect. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., called upon the Federal Trade Commission to protect children’s privacy as smart toys rise in prevalence.

I am not sure about you, but it seems like a dummy CCTV camera makes a mockery of what is a real problem high-level people are trying to solve.

We should not be normalizing this brand of surveillance, especially for children young enough to believe in Santa Claus. These kids are going to be growing up in a world where every single device will be monitoring everything that they do. Where they go. What they buy. Who they are.

Besides, children do not need a CCTV camera to scare them into behaving for the seemingly omnipotent Kris Kringle.

When I grew up, my parents would simply threaten us with a gift-less Christmas, framing it as though having nothing under the Christmas tree was equal to having a loved one die. For a kid who desperately wanted a Nintendo 64 in the mid-90s, it was a rather accurate portrait of the life-and-death Christmas struggles of a child.

And during the times where we would be tremendous pains-in-the-derrière, those threats of no presents were, shall we say, somewhat elevated. I am one of six kids, so I can’t blame my parents for blurring the lines so we didn’t know where Santa began and Lucifer himself ended.

(Don’t you mean Satan Claus? Har. Har. Har. No, I don’t.)

Fine. So, that may be a little extreme, but the point remains. Children have been told about Santa’s all-seeing glory for years. Children do not need the physical representation of Big Brother in their face to remind them to behave for a couple of weeks.

The Ghost of Surveillance Future is coming for us all. Just for a little while, we should let children believe it’s only a fat guy with a beard at the North Pole that’s watching their every move. 

Top image: Photo taken by Ryan Chiavetta. 

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