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.
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.