Privacy: beware of smart toys for kids

Smart toys connected to the Internet can be fascinating, but they are not without risk, warns Option consommateurs as the holiday season approaches.

The organization devoted to consumer protection has just completed a research report, unveiled on Tuesday, entitled “Children under listening: the protection of privacy in the environment of smart toys.”

We are talking about different types of toys, such as interactive toys or small robots. Some answer questions, make custom movements and invite children to talk to them. They have microphones, cameras and various other sensors, which serve to improve their functionality and interactivity with children. They can be operated using smart phones or tablets.

According to a piecemeal census conducted by the authors of the study, there would be at least 300 currently on sale in Canada, which are qualified as “intelligent” or “connected” by their manufacturers.

The robot dog Chip reacts to his name, the robot-truck Cozmo recognizes faces, and the little creature Furby never stops animating, cooing and chatting.

Some smart toys are even able to remember what the child has told them and adapt to it; it allows them to give him answers that correspond to his profile, his interests and his age, is noted in the report.

Caution

However, to do all this, the toys collect data: for some, the sound of the voice and the words of the toddlers, and for others, the images they capture. Some even do geolocation.

This is where the problem lies. Option consommateurs believes that the privacy of children who use these toys is poorly protected.

Not only are those who buy these toys uninformed about the data collected, but they do not know what the manufacturer is doing with this information. On the other hand, the data can be diverted and hacked, adds the organization.

The privacy policies of the manufacturers describe in vague terms the use and communication of the data captured by these devices. They do not exclude the use of these data for commercial purposes and they allow a wide sharing.

“Kids Listening: Protecting the Privacy in the Environment of Smart Toys” report from Option consommateurs

“It is not clear how the data are used,” said in a press conference Tuesday morning in Montreal Alexandre Plourde, lawyer for Option consommateurs. “And who has access to these data and who keeps them? He wonders.

A doll prohibited in Germany

Significant security breaches have been detected on several toys in recent years. At the point where Germany has even invited parents not to buy – or to destroy – the smart dolls “My friend Cayla” .

Vulnerabilities of the doll could give an opportunity for a hacker to use his microphone to talk with the child at a distance, warns Me Plourde.

In 2015, hackers were able to access the personal information of more than 316,000 Canadian children. This data was hosted on the servers of the company VTech, which manufactures tablets for children. Personal information was diverted to include names, birthday dates, photos, voice recordings and text messages, the report said.

Option consommateurs therefore recommends to parents to be well informed before buying. Or even to choose something else to put under the tree: their study also revealed that several children who participated in the study quickly tired of these toys, judging them repetitive.

Nevertheless, some of the participating children were confiding in their toys, said Plourde.

“In a few rare cases, children have become particularly attached to their toy. They told him secrets and maintained some form of relationship with him. For a child, Cozmo has become the “center of his universe”. He took care of it from morning till night, treated him like a human, talked to him and worried that he did not have enough food or was bored. The relationship became so overwhelming that the parents had no choice but to disable the notifications made by the toy so that the child was not constantly challenged by the toy, “the report said.

More coaching

Option consommateurs makes recommendations and wants the federal and provincial governments to adapt the laws to the digital world, require tests of toys before they are put on the market and give themselves withdrawal powers if one of them raises too much worries.

The Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been demanding more power for years.

“The legal framework is insufficient to ensure that smart toys for sale in Canada do not pose a danger to consumers in terms of computer security,” says Alexandre Plourde.

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