Smart toys that snitch on kids

More and more toys under the Christmas tree include connections to the internet and could present privacy problems. 

Elias Funez/The Union via AP
Volunteers in Grass Valley, Calif., sort hundreds of toys for the annual Toys For Tots giveaway in December 2021.

It’s nearly Christmas morning, when kids will tear into mysterious boxes under the tree hoping to find a toy that will fascinate and amaze them. 

Toy sales in the United States have been strong this year, up 10% over 2020. Some of these toys are packed with the latest technology, including links to the internet that allow the toy to respond to the child in ever more sophisticated ways.

Americans are becoming more and more wary of the way their personal information is being collected on the web. A new Washington Post-Schar School poll, for example, found that 72% of respondents trusted Facebook “not much” or “not at all” to handle the data it collected on them responsibly. And 70% said they believed their smartphone or other tech devices are listening to them in ways they haven’t agreed to.

That wariness is justified. But adult gift-givers may not realize that some children’s toys are collecting personal data, too. Toys with cameras, mobile apps, and requirements to set up online accounts that store data about the toy and its user all present privacy concerns, according to Trouble in Toyland, a report issued in November by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a consumer advocacy organization.

Toys that employ Bluetooth connections, for example, could be susceptible to being hacked from outside the home, perhaps exposing the child to inappropriate content or gathering sensitive information. The Mario Kart Live Home Circuit, the report notes, employs a camera that uploads images of the room in order to create a virtual racecourse. But these images of the room’s layout and the objects in it could be exposed if the game’s website were ever hacked.

Most toy manufacturers are trying to build in protections. And the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, provides another layer of defense by requiring parents to be involved in setting up the toy and giving adults the right to have their children’s online data removed.

Parents should also be aware that some toys no longer sold by manufacturers because of privacy concerns are still available for purchase online. 

PIRG suggests that parents research any smart toy before buying it, in order to understand what technology is being used and the ways their child will interact with it. Adults can check out the toy and its manufacturer online to see if privacy concerns have been raised.

The worldwide market for smart toys is expected to reach almost $70 billion in the next five years, according to Transparency Market Research. These toys can be wonderfully engaging and entertaining – and even educational, such as an interactive globe that speaks to children about a country as they touch it on the map. Action figures, robots, or dolls that talk back and hold conversations can become loved companions.

But  adults need to be sure that these high-tech friends aren’t also snitching on their children to online databases in inappropriate ways.

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