I often think about when I was a child and all the cool toys that I had: my Mickey Mouse record player, Sit-n-Spin, paint-with-water books, and enough stuffed animals to open my own store! As simple as those “nostalgic” toys seem, at the time, those were considered high-tec gadgetry. Now, children have toys that connect directly to the Internet, interact with them in real-time, record what they say and even adapts to their interests. While these toys are “cool,” and probably on every child’s Santa list for Christmas, there are some scary security implications.
The data being collected from children as they innocently play and interact with their toys could be used to conduct market research, advertise new products directly to children and even build profiles of their interests, a profile that could follow them for the rest of their digital lives.
Let’s take Hello Barbie as an example. Developed by ToyTalk, this interactive, Wi-Fi-connected Barbie doll has a microphone, speaker and a small embedded computer, along with Wi-Fi hardware. Press a button on Barbie’s belt buckle and she wakes up, asks a question and then activates the microphone. While the child speaks to Barbie, his or her replies (and any background noise) are being recorded, encoded, encrypted and sent into ToyTalk’s servers. The audio is then processed by voice-recognition software to figure out what was said and how best to reply.
This recorded data is supposedly used to assist Mattel and ToyTalk to improve Barbie’s scripted replies that are in the doll’s backend software. This is all fine and great, making the child’s future experience with the doll even more enriching, but what happens if ToyTalk’s servers get hacked? What happens if your child’s voice falls into an online predator’s hands? What happens if Barbie gets hacked by bad people who start interacting with your child?
All scary thoughts, but rest assured parents, because Barbie will email you weekly or daily, giving highlights about what your child has said and there’s even an app that allows you to specify “off limit” conversation topics.
By the way, whatever happened to teaching our children NOT to talk to strangers?!