‘Germany’s network agency should stop telling parents to smash their kids’ toys’

The Bundesnetzagentur is treating smart toys as if they are nefarious spying instruments when they are actually useful devices that help parents stay in touch with their little ones, argues Nick Wallace.

'Germany’s network agency should stop telling parents to smash their kids’ toys'
Photo: DPA

In the offbeat British crime drama Life on Mars, grizzled Mancunian police detective Gene Hunt parks his prized Ford Cortina and snarls at a nearby group of children, “anything happens to this motor, and I’ll come round your houses and stamp on all your toys!” The threat works: The car remains unharmed, and he rewards them with a hail of loose change. 

Germany’s Federal Network Agency, the Bundesnetzagentur, seems to have taken DCI Hunt’s methods to heart: following an earlier prohibition on certain “smart dolls,” the agency recently issued a blanket ban on children’s smartwatches that offer an audio link, and ordered parents to destroy any watches they had already bought.

The agency says both the dolls and the watches are covert surveillance devices, which are illegal in Germany. The agency’s position is not only bad for children, since many parents use smartwatches for child safety, but suggests that German regulators might ban other smart devices that make up the Internet of Things, as these devices often contain audio communications capabilities.

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Regulators should not ban consumer devices, like smartwatches, that are clearly not designed for surveillance. Children’s smartwatches allow parents to keep track of where their kids are, and those with audio communications let the children easily talk to their parents when they need to – much like a mobile phone, but are less likely to get lost or stolen at school, because smartwatches are strapped to the wrist.

These devices also offer kids many of the same benefits as adult smartwatches, such as fitness tracking features that set goals and help the wearer to stay fit – a worthwhile pursuit, given that over a quarter of German boys are overweight

The ban covers all kids’ smartwatches that allow parents to activate the audio link remotely via an app. The Bundesnetzagentur says such smartwatches are illegal surveillance devices because they can transmit what people are saying without their knowledge, which is a crime. The telecoms code forbids listening devices disguised as everyday objects, as well as advertising that encourages use of a product for illegal surveillance.

But lots of legal devices can be used for criminal eavesdropping. School children could just as easily use mobile phones to let their parents eavesdrop on teachers and pupils – but parents give their children mobile phones to communicate, not to spy. The same is true of smartwatches that offer an audio link to a smartphone app: regardless of who initiates the call, the device’s purpose is clearly not criminal, while eavesdropping on others with the wearer’s knowledge is just as illegal as doing so without.

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Regulators should not stop children benefiting from smartwatches, or from the Internet of Things generally. The Internet of Things involves fitting everyday objects with technology – including microphones – that add new features, such as a watch that makes phone calls or a doll that answers back. Disguised listening devices may be illegal in Germany, but it is a stretch to say a watch that lets kids talk to their parents belongs in that category. The same can be said of the talking doll: the doll’s purpose is to entertain kids, not spy on them.

Nevertheless, if regulators insist on interpreting counter-surveillance law so broadly, then the Bundestag will have to amend the law to stop them from using it this way, or German children will miss out on the benefits of new technology that other European kids can enjoy. Just because a toy manufacturer puts a microphone and a SIM card in a product does not mean they are getting into the espionage business.

If regulators are worried that some customers might use ordinary devices for nefarious purposes, then they should call for tougher enforcement of existing laws against such behaviour. It is already a crime in Germany to record people without their knowledge, so better to police the behaviour of users than to ban all technology that might be used for that purpose.

Such a call from a government agency would do far more good than instructing parents to stamp on their children’s toys, which German kids have already had to experience twice in the last year. How much more of this can the country sustain before it faces a shortage of therapists?

Nick Wallace is a Brussels-based Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, a non-profit and non-partisan public policy think tank.


Schools around Germany reopen as Covid numbers sink

As coronavirus figures continue to fall around Germany, several states are again opening schools in full force. Here’s where - and when - in-person classes are resuming again.

Schools around Germany reopen as Covid numbers sink
Elementary shcool pupils in Hanover returned to the classroom on Monday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

On Monday, the countrywide 7-day incidence dropped to 35.1 per 100,000 residents, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). The RKI reported 1,978 new cases in the last 24 hours, down from 2,682 a week before. 

In light of the lower numbers, many states have decided to end distance learning and alternating classes, and to return to regular classroom operations.

This marks the first time in several months – in some cases since November – that primary and secondary pupils have been able to return to full instruction.

However, mandatory face masks and coronavirus tests at least twice a week still apply to all pupils.

Where and when are schools reopening?

Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia is reopening schools with face-to-face instruction across the board on Monday.

Lower Saxony, Saarland and Hamburg are also returning to normal operation across class levels in most state regions. 

In Brandenburg, this initially applies only to elementary schools. The only exception is the city of Brandenburg/Havel, where the numbers are still considered to be too high. In a week’s time, the secondary schools are to follow suit. 

In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the state with the lowest 7-day incidence nationwide (14.9 as of Monday), students began returning to classes on Thursday. 

Berlin, on the other hand, plans to stick with the alternating classes – where different groups of students attend on different days – until the summer vacations, which begin June 24th.

The capital’s mayor Michael Müller (SPD) recently pointed out that the incidence among students in the capital was higher than the average. 

Rhineland-Palatinate is also taking a cautious approach. Following the end of school holidays in a week, pupils will have two more weeks of rotating classes before everyone returns for face-to-face instruction.

From June 7th in Bavaria, if the 7-day incidence remains stable below 50, face-to-face teaching is planned everywhere. Previously this was only the case at elementary schools and some special schools. 

In Baden-Württemberg, elementary schools are to return to face-to-face instruction if the 7-day incidences remain stable between 50 and 100. 

From June 11th, this is also to apply to all students in grade five and above who are currently still in alternating instruction.

What’s the reaction?

Not everyone is happy with the way schools are reopening. On Monday the Federal Parents’ Council criticised the different approaches taken by the states. 

“It’s like it has been since the outbreak of the pandemic: each state does what it wants,” complained chairwoman Sabrina Wetzel in a statement. “We demand a uniform line on openings as well.”

For parents, the different regulations from state to state are difficult to understand, she said, adding that “it’s also unfair to the children”.

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