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The Risks of “Smart” Toys

July 30, 2018

​From personal digital assistants to smart appliances, the “Internet of Things” has become a daily part of adult life, and now we’re sharing it with our children. Kid gadgets start with “tot tech” such as baby monitors with built-in cameras and teddy bears that can check kids’ vital signs. Learning toys come next: one manufacturer is developing an intelligent dinosaur toy that can talk with kids and help with studying, using machine learning to evolve its interaction with small humans. Kids from tots to teens are also using tablet devices loaded with educational apps. However, a growing number of experts are expressing concern over the risks this technology poses to kids.

​The problem is that connected toys can expose kids to the same dangers that adults face on the Internet. The UK-based consumer rights group Which? has been warning parents about the risks of connected toys for some time. Working with security researchers, Which? found that a number of popular internet-enabled toys show “concerning vulnerabilities” that could enable anyone to connect through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and talk to a child through the toy, creating a direct channel to the child for potential abusers.

​Some connected toys can also be used for spying through cameras or microphones. One IoT toy company was discovered to have stored thousands of unencrypted voice recordings of adults and children gathered through the toy. Worse, this data was stored in a publicly accessible online database. There’s also the potential for unauthorized parties to track a child via GPS-enabled toys. The Norwegian Consumer Council found that it was surprisingly simple to track kid-focused smartwatches from a number of manufacturers.

​If you’re considering giving a connected toy or device to a child, take these security steps:

  • Check what security protections the toy provides, if any. If it can’t be protected, don’t buy it.
  • If you do buy a smart toy, change the default passwords and use the security settings to prevent data-gathering and tracking, camera and microphone use by third-party applications, and anything else that would expose the child.
  • If the toy will be connected to a home wireless network, make sure that network is secure. If the toy will be taken outside the home, disable its ability to connect to other networks without permission.
  • Talk to the child about possible dangers. Small children need to know that a strange voice is “stranger danger,” even if it’s coming out of a teddy bear. (And if that sounds too creepy, don’t buy the toy.)

​Connectedness has become a fact of life, and not all internet-enabled children’s devices are dangerous, but parents and guardians need to be on guard. And the more connected devices in your children’s lives, the more risks you have to manage. So be vigilant, keep it simple, and if you have any doubt about a “smart” toy, make the smart decision not to buy it.

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