The Internet of Toys: Keeping Your Child Safe
This might come as a surprise, but you’re not the only one who’s super connected. Nowadays, even your children’s toys are part of the Internet of Things, with toy manufacturers finding ways to add in technology to create a more immersive experience. It’s a booming business, especially when you consider revenue generated from toys in the U.S. alone is almost $20 billion, with that figure expected to grow at a rapid pace.
Toy Companies Have Already Embraced Connected Toys
Fortune favors the bold, and many toy companies have embraced connectivity in various ways. Barbie, for example, has gotten even smarter, and you can now talk to her thanks to WiFi and speech recognition technology. While her speech has its limitations, it’s certainly a huge upgrade from the original toys.
Of course, Barbie isn’t the only mainstay who got a tech upgrade. The beloved rubber ducky also has gotten one in the form of Edwin the Duck. It might look like a classic toy, but hidden beneath its rubbery surface are motion sensors, a speaker and a Bluetooth chip. You need to pair Edwin via Bluetooth to a smartphone or tablet to take advantage of its complete set of features. When you move it, the action doubles on the mobile screen. The companion app lets Edwin tell stories, sing and play gesture-controlled games.
Fisher Price has also dabbled in connected toys, with the most recent and popular example being the BB-8. It can connect to a smartphone or tablet to control movement. More importantly, it also has an adaptive personality to evolve based on the individual playing with it. While the idea is nothing new (remember Furby?) the technology has advanced enough where the learning process is far more natural.
There are, of course, many other connection options, and the number is only growing. For manufacturers these toys allow them to leverage real-time data and collect customer insights. In return, kids get a more interactive and personalized experience.
The Pitfalls of Connected Toys
However, once you open up toys to the internet, there are bound to be security issues. You probably already take some precautions when it comes to your child’s tablet use. Many tablets allow you to control what features a child has access to and whether or not it can connect to the internet. You can even enable a virtual private network (VPN) for your mobile device to further protect your information by encrypting whatever data you send over the connection. The same cannot be said of these connected toys.
In a rush to catch up to this new trend, manufacturers have skipped over security, leaving customers vulnerable to attacks. In fact, one company, Genesis Toys, had 18 complaints filed against them due to the way certain toys record kids’ voices. The toys in question not only captured the voice without permission, but it also sent it to their partner company, Nuance, with few safeguards.
Even Fisher Price has come under scrutiny as their Smart Toy Bear could potentially allow hackers to compile a database of all children using the toy. Not only that, but the accompanying app also had a flaw that allowed hackers to find out the names, birthdates and even genders of the children using the toys. In 2015, a cyberattack on toymaker VTech released the personal data of 6.4 million children.
While these problems have been fixed, it’s likely other connected toys could have similar issues. This should come as no surprise, considering security remains a huge threat for both PCs and smartphones. Cyberattacks grow more sophisticated every year, and with so many devices connected to the internet, they remain prime targets for hackers.
How to Stay Safe
The easiest way to stay safe is not to buy any toys that have these capabilities. After all, kids can still have plenty of fun with traditional toys and just their imagination. If you want something more technologically advanced, opt for toys that are closed from the network. The obvious keywords to look for are WiFi and Bluetooth.
However, you should also be aware of toys that tout accompanying apps and voice recognition software. Even if the packaging doesn’t mention WiFi or Bluetooth, it is likely these toys require an internet connection.
Of course, if you really believe these interactive toys are a necessity for your child, then you should first do some research before you make a purchase. See what the toy requires to perform those features. Something like Hello Barbie requires the toy always be on so it can interact with the child.
Ask yourself if that is something you’re comfortable with. While it might be tempting to buy the latest and greatest, especially during the holiday season, as with any new tech, it’s a good idea to wait a couple months. This way the manufacturing company has some time to find and fix any potential vulnerabilities.
As connected toys become more accepted, it’s likely more manufacturers will start looking into improving security. While there’s no way to make these toys 100 percent safe—cybercriminals will find other ways to manipulate potential loopholes—so long as you take precautions, you can minimize potential dangers.
The post is written by Caroline Black. Caroline is a freelance technology and security writer. While an interconnected world via internet certainly brings with it security concerns, she’s still excited to see what else the Internet of Things will bring.