About our Methodology
The goal of Mozilla’s *Privacy Not Included buyer’s guide is to help consumers shop smart — and safe — for products and apps that connect to the Internet. It is often difficult for consumers to get clear, concrete information from companies about the security and privacy of their connected products. Is your personal data being shared or sold in ways you may not have expected? What is the company’s known track record for protecting the user data they collect? How does the company regularly test for and fix security vulnerabilities?
With this guide, we hope to help consumers navigate this landscape by understanding what questions they should ask and what answers they should expect before buying a connected tech product.
The way we approach our research here at *Privacy Not Included is from the viewpoint of a consumer, but with a bit more time and expertise. We don’t purchase the products and test them in a lab. Consumers can’t do that. Instead, we look at all the information we can find that is publicly available to consumers before they purchase a product to try and understand the privacy and security concerns consumers should be aware of. We look at things like privacy policies, company websites, news reports, research whitepapers, app store listings, consumer reviews, and anything else we can find and trust to inform our research. Too often, the information companies make publicly available is vague or incomplete. We often have no way to verify if a company is doing what it says even after they reply to our requests. We seek a future in which hours of research like this aren’t required to buy safe, responsible products.
Here is the methodology we used to develop this guide.
When we select products for *Privacy Not Included, our goal is to choose connected products and apps that are likely to be popular with consumers in North America and Europe. We make our decisions based on our own research of top selling products that are highly rated across a variety of consumer product websites such as Consumer Reports, Wirecutter, CNET, and more.
*Privacy Not Included Warning Labels
We assign our *Privacy Not Included warning label to products we have determined to have the most problems when it comes to protecting a users privacy and security. A product will earn the *Privacy Not Included warning label if it receives two or more warnings from us on the following criteria: How the company uses the data it collects on users. We ding companies for selling users data or collecting more data than is necessary for general business purposes, for example, buying data from data brokers. How users can control their data. We ding a company if they don’t have a clear and manageable way for users to delete their data from the company or explain how long they retain users’ data. What is the company’s known track record of protecting users’ data? We ding a company if they have a bad track record of not protecting users’ data based on known and reported security breaches, leaks, or vulnerabilities. Finally, we ding a company if we can not confirm if the product meets our Minimum Security Standards. In rare exceptions we might ding a company if they only receive one warning from us if we determine that warning is particularly concerning for consumers.
While we currently can assign a product a warning for the use of untrustworthy artificial intelligence, we don’t use that rating to factor into our decision to assign the *Privacy Not Included warning label as the information from companies is currently very limited and we cannot easily compare one product another with a high degree of confidence.
What could happen if something goes wrong?
We include this section to help people understand what could potentially go right or wrong related to the privacy and security with each product. We aim to identify risks and concerns that are relevant to consumers specifically. While it is likely nothing bad will happen with most of the products in this guide, it is also good to think through what could happen if something goes wrong based on real life situations.
Tips to protect yourself
We review suggestions from both the product manufacturer and draw upon published privacy and security guidance from a range of experts, both within Mozilla and outside sources, to provide a few simple tips for each product users can take to protect themselves. These tips are recommendations for protection, not guarantees.
We look to see if it is possible the device could snoop on you if it were hacked, leaked, or not working correctly. Please note, just because a device could snoop on a user doesn’t mean it will. Simply that it is a possibility users should consider before purchasing.
To determine this, we check product websites and the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store to check on the permissions requested by each app to determine whether the device and its app uses a camera, microphone, or tracks your location. (Note: an app may access “approximate” or “network” based location. “Tracks Location” was marked as “Yes” if an app requests any location information, including approximate location.)
The apps that control connected devices will typically need to request permissions from your phone for the app to work. This is mostly OK. However, we want consumers to understand when to look for things that don’t feel right, like a children’s fitness tracker app requesting permission to use the phone’s microphone or a home exercise workout machine requesting permission to track location.
What kind of data does the company collect?
Body-related (including biometric data) is data that describes our bodies and distinctive personal characteristics such as fingerprints, voices, and heart rates. Many devices collect sensitive data about stress, sleep patterns, and menstrual cycles, for instance. Some products use face and voice to identify users.
Social data includes information about your friends and contacts. We detailed which products collect this social information. This does not include the sharing of links or other information on social media through the product itself (e.g. sharing your route for a run on Facebook).
How does the company use this data?
How do companies collect, use, and share or sell user data with third parties? Do companies combine user data with data from other sources? Is data used for advertisement? For this question, we analyzed the company’s privacy documentation to determine how and when personal customer data is shared with third parties for reasons other than expected. For instance, if a company can share or sell personal customer data with third parties, or if third parties can use data for commercial purposes, then we noted this. Often, privacy policies are written to allow a company the widest set of options for data sharing and sales, even if they don’t currently engage in those activities. To determine current practices, we look for FAQs or other information on company websites to provide additional information. Additionally, if a company provides us with posted information about these practices, we include that information and relevant links.
When determining if a product receives a warning on this criteria we look at three major factors. (1) How much data does the company collect on a user? What can and does the company learn about you with this data? Does it collect a large amount of personal data or only what seems necessary for their product to work? (2) Does the company share, combine, or sell this data with a large number of third parties for purposes beyond the normal function of the product? (3) Does the company provide clear and explicit notice before sharing user data with third parties? (4) What types of data are shared for advertising and marketing purposes? We attempt to explain to users what sorts of data collection they should be concerned about in our reviews.
How can you control your data?
When determining if a product receives a warning on this criteria we look at three major factors. (1) Does the company have a means for a user to request access to the data the company has collected? (2) Does the company have a clear means for users to request the deletion of their data in a reasonable timeframe? (3) Does the company provide retention details for user data? Does the company promise to delete data after it is not needed to fulfill the purposes for which it was collected?
What is the company’s known track record of protecting users’ data?
We evaluated each company’s history of storing and protecting customer data within at least the previous three year period. We conduct research to find any known public hacks, data breaches, data leaks, or other incidents.
When determining if a product receives a warning on this criteria we look at four major factors. (1) Has the company had any major security vulnerabilities or data leaks in the past three years? (2) If the company has had known security vulnerabilities, have they acted quickly and openly to fix these security vulnerabilities and leaks? (3) Does the company have a track record of being honest and ethical when it comes to protecting user data? (4) What was the volume and sensitivity of leaked data?
Can the product be used offline?
We checked to see if the product could be used offline or if being online was a requirement to use the product effectively (if applicable). We include this to let consumers know, for example, if an app that might collect data on them is required.
User-friendly privacy information
Minimum Security Standards
Mozilla established a set of Minimum Security Standards we determine should be met by any manufacturer developing connected products. We email each company at least three times (the first email at least 30 days prior to the publication) to ask for more information about their product and how it meets our standards. For the companies who do not respond, we conduct additional research to find the answers wherever possible. If we cannot determine an answer based on the company response and our own research for any of the five criteria below, we indicate the company does not meet our Minimum Security Standards. When a company responds, even after publication, with additional information, we add this information to product listings.
We evaluated each product on our list against five criteria:
A product should use encryption in transit and at rest (where applicable). The product must use encryption for all of its network communications functions and capabilities, ensuring that communications aren’t eavesdropped on or modified in transit. User data should be encrypted when it is stored. While end-to-end encryption is preferable, it is not a requirement to meet our Minimum Security Standards.
The product must support automatic security updates for a reasonable period after sale, and be enabled by default. This ensures that when a vulnerability is known, the vendor can make security updates available for consumers, which are verified (using some form of cryptography) and then installed seamlessly.
If the product uses passwords or other means of security for remote authentication, it must require that strong passwords are used, including having password strength requirements. Any non-unique default passwords must also be reset as part of the device’s initial setup. This helps protect the device from vulnerability to guessable password attacks, which could result in a compromised device. In cases where a device is protected with something other than a password, for example a secure Bluetooth connection, we put NA in this field.
The vendor must have a system in place to manage vulnerabilities in the product. This must also include a point of contact for reporting vulnerabilities or a bug bounty program. This ensures that vendors are actively managing vulnerabilities throughout the product’s lifecycle.
We evaluate whether or not a product uses artificial intelligence. We defined AI as: automated technology that makes decisions for you and/or changes continually based on your user data. This would cover Alexa changing to better understand what you say, to your fitness wearable making recommendations on exercises to do so that you meet a specific wellness goal, or your security camera deciding not to alert you because it can distinguish a raccoon from a human. For more on Mozilla’s position on creating trustworthy AI, you can read our whitepaper Creating Trustworthy AI.
Does the product use AI?
Based on responses from companies and our own research, we note whether or not a product uses AI, or if we could not determine whether or not the product uses AI.
Is the AI untrustworthy?
When determining if a product receives a warning on this criteria we look at two major factors. (1) If we are able to determine if AI decisions demonstrate biases based on reporting from experts and trusted sources. (2) If we are able to determine if the AI behaves in some other way we consider unethical and/or untrustworthy based on reporting from experts and trusted sources.
What kind of decisions does the AI make about you or for you?
What does the company say the product’s AI is doing? To answer this question, we analyzed the product description and, if available, AI documentation and white papers.
Is the company transparent about how the AI works?
Is there publicly available information about how the algorithm behind the AI makes decisions? One of the biggest issues surrounding artificial intelligence in our consumer products is access to essential information about how AI-enabled decisions are made. Such as, how does the algorithm avoid bias and ensure fairness. We asked, does the company publicly inform and explain how their AI works? If we are able to find technical documentation, academic papers, open source code, or other documentation about the AI, we mark this as yes.
Does the user have control over the AI features?
We attempt to determine if there is any way to opt out of AI, and/or adjust the settings of the AI.