Your Child's Best Friend No More: Smart Toys that Spy On Your Children

Internet-connected smart toys can be all fun and games for your child, but what about the collection of your children's data?

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min read

With society becoming increasingly more connected thanks to the IoT, it's no surprise that children's toys are getting more advanced. Beyond just a touchscreen or having audio-visual features, children's toys now come with some degree of internet connectedness that enables different ways of interaction.

These internet-connected toys are known as smart toys.

They typically have a built-in internet connection, onboard electronics, artificial intelligence, or a built-in sensor. This connectivity enables the toy to simulate human-like intelligence, such as using voice recognition to converse with children, utilising artificial intelligence to personalise reactions or having extra controls through a smartphone app.

Marketing hype might lead you to believe that these toys are beneficial for children's development, especially when combined with other learning features. For example, some 'smart toy robots' advertise to help younger children develop communication and social skills by taking turns talking to each other. Some toys feature several behavioural games designed to educate children on personal hygiene habits.

Like other IoT devices, smart toys have features that allow them to gather and process information about your children, such as a camera and microphone, or require them to answer specific questions to befriend each other. A research report done by The Times revealed that 28% of smart toy manufacturers don't actually say whether they use encryption to protect data. This means that your children's settings personal information, including names, addresses, IP addresses, chat logs, location tracking, secret questions and answers, even conversations with and near the toy, can be recorded and accessed by unauthorised third-parties. Toys with a camera can even be used to spy on children, and many other toys lack basic safeguards. With smart toys advertised to children as young as three years old, these concerns are especially worrying.

Some smart toys can help children develop communication skills, however there privacy risks associated with those features.

A quick Google on connected toys will bring up a frightening array of news stories about potential hacks or data breaches. For instance, My Friend Cayla is a smart doll with voice recognition technology that lets children talk back to them. However, in 2017, it was revealed that cybercriminals could hack into Cayla's system, alter her responses and enable the criminal to communicate with the child directly. The German Federal Network Agency urged people to destroy the smart toy as it was deemed a concealed transmitting device. Due to poor security measures, the European Commission is currently investigating whether such toys violate EU laws on data protection. 

To make matters worse, toy manufacturers are not transparent or are not willing to take responsibility for the misuse of the child's data. One company's 3,600-word privacy policy indicates that young children are expected to study the document and secure their parent or guardian’s permission before sharing data and messages.

Privacy and security should be the upmost priority when it comes to developing smart toys for children. However, the issue remains ignored by many toy manufacturers. As of now, there are little to no privacy laws that exist to govern their design or use of data. Without these regulation, parents and children are left to navigate the complex world of smart toys without fully understanding how it can affect them in the future.

However, there are some measures you can take to keep your child (and family) as safe as possible when you foray into the smart toy scene.

Here are some general guidelines you can follow when looking for or setting up a connected toy

Purchasing a toy

  1. Consider if your child needs a connected toy in the first place. A smart toy can give your child fun and entertainment, but consider how worthy of an investment it will be given the inherent risks.
  2. Check what technology and features it comes with, such as a Bluetooth connection or a microphone, and double-check how those features collect data.
  3. Do in-depth research on the toy's features and see whether other buyers or news reports have raised concerns about its privacy and security manufacturers. Check if the manufacturer is reputable overall.
  4. Don’t discard any old connected toys without completely wiping their stored data and deleting any apps or accounts that power it.

Setting up the Smart Toy

  1. If the toy requires your child's personal information, make sure to only fill in the minimum amount of information to prevent any unnecessary data from getting leaked.
  2. Take the time to discuss with your children the risks of sharing personal information about these toys. Educate them about what and what not to say when near these devices. 
  3. Pay attention to your kids when playing to prevent them from accidentally sharing private information. Monitor their activity when nearby their device.
  4. Always make sure to check the security features before handing it over to your child. Change any default privacy settings to your own needs, and make sure to use unique terms (with upper case letters, numbers and special characters) when setting up passwords.

Download our guide Parent's Buying Guide to Smart Toys:

More to Explore:

Here's further advice and resources to support parents and children on this issue:

Smart toys - should you buy them?

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Smart toys and wearable gadgets

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Towards a better protection of children’s personal data collected by connected toys and devices

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