FTC PrivacyCon: Toys that Listen

This article is one of a series covering the Federal Trade Commission’s 2018 PrivacyCon event. The conference featured research on privacy implications of Internet technologies and smart devices. For a full list of Consumers’ Research’s articles on this event, click here.

Toys that Listen: A Study of Parents, Children, and Internet-Connected Toys

Emily McReynolds, a researcher with the University of Washington’s Tech Policy Lab, presented her paper “Toys that Listen: A Study of Parents, Children, and Internet-Connected Toys.” The paper was written with Sarah Hubbard, Timothy Lau, Aditya Saraf, Maya Cakmak, and Franziska Roesner, all of the University of Washington. McReynolds discussed some past and present “smart toys.” The first such toys were Teddy Ruxpin and later, Furby. These toys had chips embedded in them and could recite pre-recorded phrases, but were not connected to the Internet like today’s smart toys. In 2015, two transformative new toys entered the market. “Hello Barbie” had a speech recognition function that required physical interaction to work, so it was not always on (children would push on the doll’s belt buckle to engage speech recognition). However, it recorded all of the statements and conversations and stored this information online. The doll also encouraged social media sharing. German authorities, meanwhile, were so concerned by the other product unveiled in 2015, “My Friend Cayla” that they banned it in their country.

Modern smart toys are not only Internet-connected, but they may also use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The risk of an Internet-connected toy is that it stores or sends data online, and then that data might be hacked, exposing recorded conversations, personal information, perhaps even photos of children.

McReynolds noted that there are a number of non-toy IoT devices that do similar things to smart toys, that children interact with – Amazon Echo and Google Home, for example. Children often play with their parents’ iPads or iPhones, as well.

McReynolds’ study included several choice quotes from parents and children. McReynolds shared one particular exchange with the audience. The parent asked their child: “Hey, did you know that Barbie doll, when you’re all done, everything that you share with her would end up on the computer so we could talk about it? Would that make it fun for you?” The child’s response: “That’s pretty scary.”

In the session’s panel discussion, McReynolds said that she recommended it be obvious that toys are recording and storing conversations, so parents and children are better informed to make decisions about the toys and about privacy. She also noted that while some parents queried in the study were hesitant about the privacy implications of smart toys, some were enthusiastic about the recording aspect. She likened parents listening to what their child had told the smart toy to a parent reading a child’s journal or diary.

Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels.

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