There are lots of great benefits to using a smartwatch or fitness band. They can encourage activity, deliver data to you in a convenient and unobtrusive way and they can let you take your music with you without carrying a phone.
But they can also be used to keep spy on people – and that’s getting German authorities riled up. An entire class of smartwatches are designed specifically for parents to keep track of their kids. Germany’s Federal Network Agency says devices with GPS tracking capability and integrated cellular comms constitute unauthorised transmission systems and have banned the devices.
A statement by the agency says:
Via an app, parents can use such children’s watches to listen unnoticed to the child’s environment and they are to be regarded as an unauthorized transmitting system “, says Jochen Homann , President of the Federal Network Agency. ” According to our research, parents’ watches are also used to listen to teachers in the classroom.
Here’s the original German notice. The quote comes via Google translate.
The primary concern with the devices is that they could be turned into remote microphones – it’s not the GPS tracking capability that is the main issue.
There’s no doubt technology can offer parents lots of benefits but the ability to use this tech as a spying device is a significant escalation in helicopter parenting. I worked as a school teacher many years ago and, while I always welcomed parents and other guardians to talk with me about their kids and what we’re doing in class, I’m not sure I’d have been comfortable with parents being able to to tune in to a lesson. It’s important for teachers to build trust relationships with students. If students are aware their parents are checking up on the teacher then this could send a signal that teachers are not to be trusted.
And while there have been cases of teachers abusing trust relationships, those are very much in the minority.
However, I’m now a step-father to two boys who fall right into the target audience of these devices, which German authorities say are pitched at five to 12 year olds. While knowing where they are is important, my wife and I trust the school to do the right thing. When we’re out at a park, we keep an eye on the kids – the best way to do that is to engage with them and join in their games. The presence of a supervising adult is a better deterrent to a bad guy than a smartwatch in my view.
As is the case with any connected device, there’s always the chance a threat actor could exploit a vulnerability – something Norwegian authorities found in a recent round of testing. They described the results of their tests on kids’ smartwatches as “alarming” with “significant security flaws, unreliable safety features and a lack of consumer protection”.
The Federal Network Agency in German is recommending parents destroy devices and to notify the agency when they have done so.
I think there’s a place for fitness trackers for kids – there are a few on the market now with Milo releasing one a while ago, and Garmin releasing a tracker targeted at children. But they don’t have GPS or cellular comms.