The connected toy story needs chapters on security and privacy

IoT connected toys
Image credit: Besjunior /

We are living in an increasingly connected world where the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud technologies are moving into our homes and our lives. Now, even children’s toys are connected.

Connected toys may come in the form of squeezable stuffed animals, dolls, or plastic dinosaurs, with built-in electronic components such as speakers, wireless receivers and transmitters, recording devices, and cloud connection capability. These toys are capable of ‘listening’ and having conversations.

In some cases, they learn by interacting with kids – the recordings of voices and data are uploaded and stored in the cloud, helping toys to become smarter day by day. Some more sophisticated IoT toys are equipped with cameras, motion activators and sensors, and Bluetooth.

The growing popularity of Internet-connected toys, however, raises privacy issues as well as cybersecurity concerns.

A research study [PDF] conducted by the University of Washington found that many child participants in the study did not know the connected toys were listening and recording their conversations, and their parents were concerned about their children’s privacy being violated.

What’s more, personal information stored in the cloud and, conversations and activities occurring within the house, school or day-care facilities could be easily obtained by cyber criminals.

“There has just been this rush to market by a number of toy manufacturers because they see that kids are so enthralled by electronics that they also want to do the same for toys,” Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), told ITU News. “We are hoping to strike that message to toy manufacturers.” 

Red flags for parents

Before purchasing a connected toy, parents should be knowledgeable of how the toy works, its capabilities, what type of data it can collect and where they are stored.

Parents should also do sufficient research and look out for red flags that could pose potential security risks. For example, check if there are any known security issues associated with the product as well as the toy company.

FOSI launched an original publication in July, Connected Families, that looks at parental attitudes – not only fears and concerns, but also hopes and aspirations of these connected devices and toys in their homes.

“We are going to keep raising awareness of what this new world looks like in the way that we did ten years ago when suddenly we had a world with Web 2.0 and mobile technologies that didn’t exist ten years before that,” Balkam asserts.

The Institute also works with tech companies on improving the trust and safety aspects of software products and safety-proof the products prior to launch.

“Tech companies themselves are taking a much more proactive approach. They understand that they need to make sure their products are trustworthy, safe, and have privacy controls, otherwise people won’t use them,” said Balkam.

FOSI is a member of ITU’s Child Online Protection (COP) initiative, which is committed to create an international collaborative network and promote online safety for children worldwide.

Written by Nicole Jao (@nicole_i_jao) | The original version of this article first appeared in ITU News

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