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Who’s watching your children?

You wouldn’t let your child surf the internet with zero supervision. There are too many strangers and weirdos lurking in the dark corners of the web. But you may not know that creeps could already be peering in on you and your children from the toy box. High tech toys that are part of the so-called internet of things are a majorly overlooked threat to privacy in your home.

According to a public service message out from the FBI this week, parents should take a look in their children’s’ toy boxes and identify devices equipped with “sensors, microphones, cameras, data storage components, and other multimedia capabilities — including speech recognition and GPS options,” which could allow hackers and corporations to surreptitiously spy on your family.

In recent years, thousands of new “smart toys” and entertainment devices geared toward children have incorporated such technology along with internet connectivity functions. And depending on the fine print in that instruction pamphlet your child chucked shortly after opening his or her new tech toy, your family may be unwittingly recorded by some of the devices for commercial purposes.

As noted in the FBI advisory:

Information such as the child’s name, school, likes and dislikes, and activities may be disclosed through normal conversation with the toy or in the surrounding environment. The collection of a child’s personal information combined with a toy’s ability to connect to the Internet or other devices raises concerns for privacy and physical safety. Personal information (e.g., name, date of birth, pictures, address) is typically provided when creating user accounts. In addition, companies collect large amounts of additional data, such as voice messages, conversation recordings, past and real-time physical locations, Internet use history, and Internet addresses/IPs. The exposure of such information could create opportunities for child identity fraud. Additionally, the potential misuse of sensitive data such as GPS location information, visual identifiers from pictures or videos, and known interests to garner trust from a child could present exploitation risks.

Consumers should examine toy company user agreement disclosures and privacy practices, and should know where their family’s personal data is sent and stored, including if it’s sent to third-party services. Security safeguards for these toys can be overlooked in the rush to market them and to make them easy to use. Consumers should perform online research of these products for any known issues that have been identified by security researchers or in consumer reports.

Another concern involving internet-connected playthings is their vulnerability to hackers. Toys connected to your home Wi-Fi network and the internet typically don’t come with the same level of security as your home computer, meaning hackers could possibly use the toys as a weak point to gain access to other devices in the home or even spy on and communicate with children via tech toys without parents’ knowledge.

Here are some tips the FBI offers to protect your children and family privacy when internet-connected toys are in the home:

  • Research for any known reported security issues online…
  • Only connect and use toys in environments with trusted and secured Wi-Fi Internet access
  • Research the toy’s Internet and device connection security measures
    • Use authentication when pairing the device with Bluetooth (via PIN code or password)
    • Use encryption when transmitting data from the toy to the Wi-Fi access point and to the server or cloud
  • Research if your toys can receive firmware and/or software updates and security patches
    • If they can, ensure your toys are running on the most updated versions and any available patches are implemented
  • Research where user data is stored – with the company, third party services, or both – and whether any publicly available reporting exists on their reputation and posture for cyber security
  • Carefully read disclosures and privacy policies (from company and any third parties) and consider the following:
    • If the company is victimized by a cyber-attack and your data may have been exposed, will the company notify you?
    • If vulnerabilities to the toy are discovered, will the company notify you?
    • Where is your data being stored?
    • Who has access to your data?
    • If changes are made to the disclosure and privacy policies, will the company notify you?
    • Is the company contact information openly available in case you have questions or concerns?
  • Closely monitor children’s activity with the toys (such as conversations and voice recordings) through the toy’s partner parent application, if such features are available
  • Ensure the toy is turned off, particularly those with microphones and cameras, when not in use
  • Use strong and unique login passwords when creating user accounts (e.g., lower and upper case letters, numbers, and special characters)
  • Provide only what is minimally required when inputting information for user accounts (e.g., some services offer additional features if birthdays or information on a child’s preferences are provided)
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