Business Security & Privacy Society

Are Connected Toys Worth the Risk?

Courtesy of Mattel.com

In the words of Kevin Kelly, everything is getting “cognitized” and connected. It’s a trend with both wonderful and worrisome implications, especially for our kids.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth are transforming everyday objects ranging from toys and toothbrushes to cars and clothes. Our homes, schools, stores, towns, and cities are quickly becoming “smart” and interconnected at a pace and scale that is hard to comprehend.

At a recent roundtable in London, the Family Online Safety Institute set out to raise a wide range of questions that connected devices, toys, and cars could raise for kids and their families. (FOSI, which I lead, works to make the online world safer for kids and families.) We assembled industry experts, researchers, safety advocates, and other NGOs to grapple with the potential safety, security, and privacy issues that the Internet of Things may raise. We also discussed the remarkable benefits and rewards that await us in a world where sensors, devices, and even t-shirts may share data with us and one another to keep us safe, healthy, and informed.

But first the group took a look back 20 years to the White House’s first Internet Summit of 1997. The issues and concerns of the Clinton administration back then centered on porn on the internet. So pressure was put on the main portals and ISPs, such as AOL, Yahoo, and Netscape to create parental controls and safety features in browsers, operating systems, and search engines.

Fast forward ten years, and 2007 brought us the iPhone era and an explosion of social media sites like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter. Now the problem became that the kids themselves were creating the content we had been trying to keep them away from, and doing it on mobile devices that were much harder to monitor than the family PC. There were renewed calls for more to be done by mobile operators, ISPs, and platforms to create content controls while ensuring privacy and safety. Meanwhile, new educational efforts were launched to respond to behavioral issues like cyberbullying, sexting, and revenge porn.

Ten years later and it’s a new reality. There are over 20 billion connected devices in the world today. Last year 275 million wearables were sold, with smart watches leading the pack, while connected fitness and health monitors increase each year.

Nowhere is this trend becoming more evident than in the growing market for connected devices and wearables for babies and toddlers. The “datafied” child is fast becoming a reality and new norms of raising children are emerging that suggest a “monitored child is a safe child”.

But there are real concerns about the outsourcing of parenting to devices. Many monitors on the market are not medical devices, although they may assuage parental concerns about a child’s temperature or heart rate. AI-infused dolls that listen and talk may provide solace to lonely or bored kids, but questions remain about the security of the data collected and the hackability of the toys themselves.

The large toy manufacturers, like Mattel, maker of Hello Barbie, appear to be up to the challenge of complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and other regulatory regimes in the U.S. and EU. But many smaller or emerging toy makers are either unaware of the security and privacy risks that smart, connected dolls and toys bring or are simply ignoring them in a rush to a very lucrative market.

The psychological impact of connected devices and toys is another area of worry, as well as a potential source of benefit for kids of all ages and abilities. Smart toys are strikingly immersive, which gives them a different emotional intensity than screen-based games. Connected toys come alive, and children can imbue consciousness and feelings to these inanimate but realistically responding objects.

There is a fear, however, that children’s imaginative play will be stunted by the preordained algorithms that steer these digital conversations and trigger certain reactions from a child. And yet speech therapists and others working with kids with special needs see real opportunities that smart toys may facilitate breakthroughs with autistic and speech-impaired children.

And it would also appear from early studies that social and emotional learning can be enhanced by certain types of smart, connected toys and devices. There is a blending of formal and informal learning, tailored to the specific needs of a child, even helping them learn a foreign language or how to code. Furthermore, imaginative play can be enhanced and encouraged through smart toys.

Of course, many parents will want to eschew these digital playmates for their kids and get them outdoors and into the woods instead. And if these parents fear for their children’s safety and simply want to know where they are, there are a host of GPS-tracking devices, apps, and wearables. These may help give today’s kids the freedom to roam that many adults remember as a core part of growing up.

Perhaps, at the end of the day when it’s time to pick up the kids, a driverless car will be dispatched to the edge of the woods to bring them back to their smart homes. But in order for all this connectedness to keep them healthy and safe, we’re all going to have to pay a lot more attention.

Stephen Balkam is the founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute.  He spoke at the Techonomy 2016 conference on a session entitled What Hello Barbie Said to Alexa and Siri.

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