A tech-safety expert explains the scary new FBI warning.
We’ve come a long way from Beanie Babies and Barbies that could only talk to your child in her imagination. There are now numerous interactive dolls, robots, and stuffed animals that contain microphones to listen to your kid and connect to the Internet via WiFi or Bluetooth—your kids can even snuggle and converse with a toy dinosaur that’s powered by Watson, the computer famous for competing on Jeopardy!.
But the rush to bring all this technology to market has caused some serious security breaches already, and the FBI issued a frightening warning early this week telling parents that those adorable toys can actually be used to spy on their kids or collect personal data leading to identity theft.
“The problem is, many companies are rushing to the market with these connected toys that are totally insecure,” says Stephen Balkam, the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Personal information like home addresses and emails can be plucked off the cloud, and in the worst-case scenario, someone might hack into the connection and use the toy to listen to your child and even find out his or her location through the device’s GPS. In Germany, parents were actually instructed by the government to destroy a talking doll when it was discovered that the innocent-looking toy could be hacked.
“The FBI warning is partly to increase awareness among parents, but also it’s a shot across the bow of the toy manufacturers to make sure they are creating the best practices for keeping these toys safe,” says Balkam.
In the meantime, if your child has one of these Internet-connected toys and still wants to play with it, you need to do your homework, Balkam advises. “Read the fine print on the box, go online to do research, do a Google search to see if there have been any problems with the company, and keep abreast of any new security updates,” he says.
If that seems like way too much work for a busy parent, then your best bet is to stick to low-tech toys until the safety features catch up with the technology.