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Reading this in incognito? We’ve got your privacy-conscious gift guide

AP Photo/Mike Stewart
In this Aug. 16, 2018, file photo a child holds his Amazon Echo Dot in Kennesaw, Ga. Amazon met with skepticism from some privacy advocates and members of Congress last year when it introduced its first kid-oriented voice assistant , along with brightly colored models of its Echo Dot speaker designed for children.
By Jeremy B. Merrill
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Some of this year’s hottest “smart” gifts would land like a lump of coal with your privacy-conscious friends.

Instead of gifting home assistants or DNA kits, which will then gift private information to data-driven companies, here are some presents that ensure those friends will feel seen. (Or, rather, not seen.)

  • A new email service. Though Google has stopped reading your emails for ads in Gmail, it does scan it for other purposes. Services like Fastmail and ProtonMail don’t have ads at all and are smaller, more independent businesses. Fastmail costs about $40/yr and ProtonMail costs $48/yr, but also has a free tier. (ProtonMail also offers additional encryption, but that’s only useful if both the sender and the receiver use ProtonMail.) Keep in mind that Google does have extensive security resources to protect Gmail from, say, hackers, so that might represent a tradeoff. Shopping guide: Gift cards aren’t available, so you’d be better off paying for the subscription directly, or giving cash plus the signup url.
  • Anti-surveillance clothing. Cameras with facial recognition are sprouting up everywhere. In protest, clever activists have developed clothing designs that can confuse the facial recognition systems—they identify your shirt (or scarf) as your face. Academic researchers have only managed to get a specially-optimized design to work 57% of the time, my colleague Amrita Khalid reports. Commercial designs probably do much worse. But they have a 100% success rate as a statement piece. Shopping guide: Many choices are available on RedBubble. Or go for a version meant to fool license-plate readers from Adversarial Fashion.
  • Less-smart smart-home products. Internet-connected devices risk hacks and viruses, especially because after a few years manufacturers have little incentive to keep older software up-to-date. I have a SwitchMate light switch I control via Bluetooth from my phone. While it can be a bit finicky, it means I don’t have a perhaps-insecure switch and I can still turn out the light from bed. Shopping guide: SwitchMate at Amazon.
  • A VPN, or virtual private network. Your internet service provider (ISP) is probably looking at your web traffic to target ads to you. Its ability to surveil you is limited by your browser (indicated by that lock next to a web address), but still some info leaks out. VPNs encrypt all your traffic, hiding it from the ISP and replacing it with another company that promises not to look. Some of these companies have even been audited, to check that they’re really not looking.VPN services reviewed by The Wirecutter roll in at about about $50/yr. Shopping guide: VPN companies don’t tend to offer gift subscriptions. Your best bet is cash or a Visa gift card and a nice note encouraging them to spend it on a VPN.
  • A laptop-camera cover. It’s a cheap and easy gift for stuffing a stocking, filling the hard-to-fill seventh night of Hanukkah, or just to hand out at the office. The importance of a physical way to disable your laptop’s webcam became clear this year when a bug in Zoom video-conferencing software allowed any website (or even an ad) to cause a visitor’s computer to immediately join a videochat—and turn on their camera. You don’t really want that, especially if you ever leave your laptop out in your house. While Zoom quickly fixed the bug, hackers might find ways to replicate it with other video software. Shopping guide: 3-pack on Amazon for $9.68.

If needling your privacy-minded friend or family member is your aim, how about an online influence campaign just for them?

  • Online subliminal messaging. A sibling or another variety of frenemy might appreciate your attempt to creep them out. Try Spinner, a service that lets you target, say, your parents with ads all around the web, ensuring they see 180 suggestions—as if by chance—that, for instance, they should get a dog. You can also set up a custom set of links you want your frenemy to see. The service works just like ads reminding you of a pair of shoes, and your target must click a special link … which might be tricky to pull off.

Gag or no gag, here are some creepy gifts to avoid:

  • Digital assistants like Google Home, Amazon Echo, and Facebook’s Portal, with their always-on microphones (and sometimes cameras) that send personal information to companies with terrible reputations for privacy.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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