Illustration: John Ritter

Driving Digital Security

Whats at stake: Today's marketplace offers an ever-growing list of connected products—smartphones, smart TVs, smart refrigerators, even smart sneakers. Plus, we have millions of apps and other digital tools at our fingertips, and most of us are daily users of huge online platforms like Amazon and Google.

Smart technology delivers many conveniences but also raises serious questions about the safety of our personal information and the ways it's collected, shared, and exploited. Meanwhile, companies often fail to police themselves—and the federal government has not always kept pace with new technology.

How CR has your back: To tackle these problems, we've launched the CR Digital Lab, a new initiative that will expand our work on consumer privacy and digital security. Funded in part by a $6 million investment from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Digital Lab will build on CR's core strengths: product testing, investigative journalism, and advocacy. The aim is to develop new ways to test and report on digital products and services, from connected thermostats to cars that collect data on drivers to the websites of tech companies big and small.

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"Consumer Reports has a strong track record, from ensuring the security of seatbelts in cars to keeping toxins out of food," says Newmark, founder of Craigslist and a former CR board member. "This initiative will increase transparency, giving consumers more control, more options, and stronger voices."

A previous investment by Newmark helped CR lead the development of the Digital Standard, a set of benchmarks companies can use to design digital products that respect consumer privacy. In 2018, CR applied the Digital Standard to our television testing, discovering that certain smart TVs were vulnerable to hacking. Similar work is planned or underway with routers, password managers, and other devices and services.

"The Digital Lab will reveal precisely where our rights are being undermined," says CR president Marta Tellado. "Armed with that knowledge, consumers can make choices that protect their privacy and hold digital giants to account."

What you can do: Learn more about CR's work on Data Privacy here.

Fighting the Robocallers

What's at stake: Consumers are so fed up with robocalls that most have stopped answering their phones if they can't identify the caller in advance. Robocalls aren't just annoying, either. Truecaller estimates that consumers have lost almost $10.5 billion to phone scams over the previous 12 months.

How CR has your back: In April, CR hosted a roundtable session at the U.S. Capitol on ways that Congress could curb unwanted robocalls. The next month, the Senate approved, 97 to 1, the CR-endorsed Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act. It would enable the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on scammers and require phone companies to adopt technologies that verify caller ID data before the calls reach consumers. CR has been working with the House on taking similar action, and urging President Trump to support the effort. Meanwhile, the FCC established that phone companies may preemptively block robocalls as long as customers can opt out.

What you can do: Go to CR's online petition (robocallspetition.cr.org) to join the more than 215,000 consumers urging the FCC to ensure carriers adopt effective, free anti-robocall technologies.

Pushing for Safer Furniture

What's at stake: A TV, appliance, or piece of furniture tips over and kills a child in the U.S. once every two weeks, on average. Dressers are particularly deadly. Yet both the furniture industry and the federal government have been slow to take steps that could address the problem.

Two recent events, however, are likely to make these tragedies less common. One is the passage by the New York State legislature of Harper's Law, named after 3-year-old Harper Fried of Monroe, N.Y., who died from a furniture tip-over incident. (We expect Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign it into law.) In addition, following a May meeting of the ASTM Furniture Safety subcommittee—on which CR sits, along with parents, industry representatives, and other safety advocates—the group is now willing to extend a key voluntary standard to dressers as short as 27 inches.

How CR has your back: CR worked with New York legislators and the Fried family to ensure that Harper's Law would restrict sales of dressers that fail to meet baseline stability standards, while CR's New York members sent 2,600 messages of support to their state lawmakers. CR also spent months urging the industry to strengthen its voluntary standard, in particular by expanding its scope to dressers 27 inches and taller—a recommendation based on the findings of a CR tip-over investigation published in the May 2018 issue of the magazine.

What you can do: Learn more about furniture tip-overs in "Furniture Tip-Overs: A Hidden Hazard in Your Home."

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.