You may want to save your receipts if you gifted any low-end Android TV set-top boxes or children's tablets to a friend or loved one this holiday season. In a series of investigations this year, EFF researchers confirmed the existence of dangerous malware on set-top boxes manufactured by AllWinner and RockChip, and discovered sketchyware on a tablet marketed for kids from the manufacturer Dragon Touch. 

Though more reputable Android devices are available for watching TV and keeping the little ones occupied, they come with a higher price tag as well. This means that those who can afford such devices get more assurance in the security and privacy of these devices, while those who can only afford cheaper devices by little-known manufacturers are put at greater risk.

The digital divide could not be more apparent. Without a clear warning label, consumers who cannot afford devices from well-known brands such as Apple, Amazon, or Google are being sold devices which come out-of-the-box ready to spy on their children. This malware opens their home internet connection as a proxy to unknown users, and exposes them to legal risks. 

Traditionally, if a device like a vacuum cleaner was found to be defective or dangerous, we would expect resellers to pull these devices from the department store floor and to the best of their ability notify customers who have already bought these items and brought them into their homes. Yet we observed the devices in question continued to be sold by online vendors months after widely circulated news of their defects.

After our investigation of the set-top boxes, we urged the FTC to take action against the vendors who sell devices known to be riddled with malware. Amazon and AliExpress were named in the letter, though more vendors are undoubtedly still selling these devices. Not to spoil the holiday cheer, but if you have received one of these devices, you may want to ask for another gift and have the item refunded.

In the case of the Dragon Touch tablets, it was apparent that this issue went beyond just Android TV boxes and even encompassed budget Android devices specifically marketed for children. The tablet we investigated had an outdated pre-installed parental controls app that was labeled as adware, leftover remnants of malware, and sketchy update software. It’s clear this issue reached a wide variety of Android devices and it should not be left up to the consumer to figure this out. Even for devices on the market that are “normal,” there still needs to be work done by the consumer just to properly set up devices for their kids and themselves. But there’s no total consumer-side solution for pre-installed malware and there shouldn’t have to be.

Compared with the products of yesteryear, our “smart” and IOT devices carry a new set of risks to our security and privacy. Yet, we feel confident that with better digital product testing—along with regulatory oversight—can go a long way in mitigating these dangers. We applaud efforts such as Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included to catalog just how much our devices are protecting our data, since as it currently stands it is up to us as consumers to assess the risks ourselves and take appropriate steps.

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