Internet-enabled, or “smart,” toys are at the top of most kids’ holiday lists this year, and it’s no wonder why they’re so popular. Kids can play and connect with smart toys in unique and interactive ways. Some are connected to websites and apps, and can range from simple drawing tools and stories, to more in-depth “grown-up” play like taking care of a virtual animal or learning to write code. There are even gadgets aimed at helping establish healthy habits, like a water bottle that encourages staying hydrated throughout the day, or a toothbrush that lets kids play games while brushing to promote good dental hygiene.
However, as with everything else connected to the Internet, there are possible danger zones. In fact, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (ICCC) has issued a notice to consumers about privacy and safety concerns associated with smart toys and other children’s devices that connect online. While that cute Furby Connect Friend sitting in the corner may seem innocent, the FBI warns that internet-connected toys can create opportunities for child identity fraud.
How is my child at risk?
According to the FBI, the risk with smart toys comes from the fact that they are able to collect personal information about your child, and also have Internet access. Information is gathered through built-in features like:
- Data storage
- Speech recognition
- GPS options
For instance, if the toy has a microphone, it could potentially record not just your child’s voice, but also other conversations happening around it.
“Information such as the child’s name, school, likes and dislikes, and activities may be disclosed through normal conversation with the toy or in the surrounding environment,” the FBI explains.
In addition, the FBI warns, personal information is usually requested when setting up a user account online for the toy, such as your child’s name, date of birth, pictures, and address. With just this basic information, the FBI says, smart-toy manufacturers and third parties can potentially collect “large amounts of additional data” about your child including GPS location, visual identifiers from pictures and videos, and known interests/hobbies used to garner your child’s trust.
“These features could put the privacy and safety of children at risk due to the large amount of personal information that may be unwittingly disclosed,” the FBI says.
Tips to protect your child
If a smart toy is #1 on your kid’s gift list, the FBI offers several tips to help reduce risks. Just as you tell your kids, it’s important to do your homework.
Research any known reported security issues with the toy. Google the name of the toy and “security concerns.”
Find out the toy’s security measures for connecting to the Internet and other devices, through technologies like Bluetooth.
Know if the toy can receive updates and security patches. If yes, make sure to obtain the latest updates.
Research where and how user data collected by the toy is stored and used, both by the manufacturer and third-parties, and what measures are in place to protect it.
Many of the same basic rules for staying safe online apply to safe smart toy play as well. For example:
Only connect toys to trusted, secured Wi-Fi networks.
Be aware of the information your kids are providing when setting up user accounts. Tell them to divulge as little personal information as possible.
Use strong, unique passwords for user accounts.
Use a password or PIN when connecting the toy to another device via Bluetooth.
Closely monitor your child’s activity with the toy, especially recorded sounds and conversations.
Disconnect the toy from the Internet and turn it off when not in use.
References: FBI, Money Talks News, Avatar Generation, USA TODAY