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Is the smart toy you bought your child for Christmas too clever by half?

Our resident teenager blogger gets to grips with connected toys

Recently, tech companies have decided that just about everything needs to be ‘connected,’ from your glasses to your toaster and even a belt which connects to your phone and vibrates when it decides you’ve eaten one too many mince pies. One of the latest additions to our connected world is the influx of connected toys, and as lovely as they seem from the outset, I think they’re a little closer to Chucky than Buzz Lightyear.

Connected toys are dolls which have access to the internet, which gives them a wide range of functionality. One feature in particular stands out to me however, and that is the voice recognition software used. The idea is that a child can talk to their doll and ask it questions, the doll will then search the internet and read out the relevant Wikipedia article to answer the child. This is completely fine and may even prove to be a good educational tool, however there are a few possible flaws.

First is the risk of your child’s doll being hacked. This could take any number of forms, for example a hacker could simply turn on the built-in microphone of the doll and record a child’s conversations, or they could even use the speakers to reply, and have a conversation with your child right in their bedroom. You may be thinking that the odds of this happening are so slim that it doesn’t really matter as not many people know how to hack, but it’s actually rather simple. Some dolls, like My Friend Cayla, connect to a device via Bluetooth. This is so it can connect to the user’s tablet or smartphone and through it access the internet, and interact with the child.

This could be an issue as, in theory, anyone within range of the doll (around 10 metres, according to the doll’s website) may be able to connect to it without a password. All they would have to do is go to their Bluetooth settings and press connect. This grants access to the speakers and microphone within the doll and thus creates a medium for conversation. This may not be a problem for those living out in the country with a few acres of land between them and the nearest Sainsbury’s, but for those living in an apartment block there is a very real risk that your neighbours could be chatting to your child.*

This may be enough for you to question your latest Christmas present choice, but for those who are still not sure whether the risk is serious, then there is a second concern.

Good voice recognition takes a lot of time and testing to create. A lot of this happens before the toy is released, but it is an ongoing process, and as such, many companies are recording the conversations between children and their connected toys in order to improve the software. This raises serious privacy questions. For starters, you may not love the idea of random software engineers listening to your children’s conversations. There is also the potential risk of these conversations and the data in them being sold to the highest bidder.

At the moment, there are a number of questions being asked by privacy groups about this risk and, so far, it is unconfirmed whether the data is being shared with large companies. Given the casual approach some companies take to privacy, I wouldn’t be shocked to discover that someone has access to the “private” conversations between children and their toys.

(For the record, the people behind My Friend Cayla state on the doll’s website that ‘There is no “data mining” or storage of any personal information’.)

As a teenager I rarely find myself thinking that new technology innovations are a bad thing and I don’t want to be the harbinger of doom. There is a lot of potential in these toys, and the risk of hacking is probably small despite it being easy. Most people won’t really care what your kids are asking their toys. But I do think it is important to be aware of the risks posed by tech becoming more and more involved in young children’s lives, otherwise we are in for a nasty shock when Skynet takes over and Terminators run the world.

* We contacted the makers of My Friend Cayla to ask them about various concerns about their product via their website but they have yet to reply. 

Further reading

This doll may be recording what children say

Toys can be tricky

Hell no Barbie: 8 reasons to leave Hello Barbie on the shelf

Smart homes haunted by the cyber-ghost of Christmas future

Image: Ventus17, public domain