Bamboozled December 22, 2016: Can these toys spy on your children?

 

 

You don’t let your kids talk to strangers. You certainly don’t willingly give over private information about your kids to strangers.

But internet-connected toys may leave children vulnerable.

According to critics, the toys can be used to take advantage of your kids, and even put them in danger.

Strangers or predators could use the technology in the toys to talk directly to your children, according to a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) by several consumer advocacy and privacy groups. The bad guys can also hear what your children tell the toy.

That information could be used for, well, we’ll leave that to your imagination.

The complaint alleges the internet-connected toys My Friend Cayla and iQue Robot — neither are brand new releases — violate federal privacy and consumer protection laws.

“The toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance and are deployed in homes across the United States without any meaningful data protection standards,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in the complaint.

The complaint targets toymaker Genesis Toys and speech recognition technology provider Nuance Communications, who together created My Friend Cayla and i-Que Robot.

Neither company responded to our request for an interview.

The two toys, according to the complaint, violate of both the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and the FTC’s prohibition on unfair and deceptive acts and practices.

“Specifically, the companies unfairly and deceptively collect, use, and disclose audio files of children’s voices and other personal information without providing adequate notice or obtaining verified parental consent in violation of COPPA, the FTC’s COPPA Rule, and Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” EPIC said.

You keep your personal information safe, and that’s good. You also need to make sure your children’s identities are not stolen.

Then there’s the wireless component.

The toys have no “reasonable security measures,” EPIC said, which means anyone could use Bluetooth to connect with the toys — and your kids.

“As a result, Genesis fails to prevent strangers and predators from covertly eavesdropping on children’s private conversations, which creates a substantial risk of harm because children may be subject to predatory stalking or physical danger,” EPIC said.

Anyone who connects to the toys could, in essence, get intimate information about your kids.

On top of that, the voice recordings made by kids who use the toys are transmitted to Nuance Communications, which may use the recordings for just about anything it wants, EPIC said, including sharing it with third parties or using it to create targeted advertising.

Before you say the toys’ critics are overreacting, consider what’s happened in Europe. There, some retailers have pulled the toys from store shelves and consumer groups are actively warning parents.

The most frightening warning came in the form of a video by the Norwegian Consumer Council. It demonstrates how someone — even from a very far distance — could use the wireless connection to speak through the doll to your child.

“With simple steps, anyone can take control of the toys through a mobile phone,” the Council said on its web site. “This makes it possible to talk and listen through the toy without having physical access to the toy.”

That’s pretty scary stuff.

Back at home, following the complaint to the FTC, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who authored COPPA while a member of the House, sent letters to Genesis and Nuance.

“Sen. Markey asks for responses to questions that include what data are the companies collecting about children 12 years old and younger, how is this information used, and whether the information is shared or sold,” a spokeswoman said.

Markey’s office said the companies haven’t responded to his inquiries.

If these toys are in Santa’s sack and destined for your children, you might want to call the guy in the red suit to find an alternate gift while there’s still time.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.