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How safe are "smart toys" like Hello Barbie?
So-called "smart toys," including Mattel's Hello Barbie, Fisher-Price's Smart Toy Bear, and VTech's InnoTab Max, promise to learn and grow with your kid. But to do that, they must collect a lot of data. This data includes things such as your kid's name, address, and gender, as well as your social security and credit card numbers. It also includes things it "learns" from its conversations with your kid, such as what they want to be when they grow up. Recent data breaches and potential threats on these products point to privacy and security issues that need to be worked out. Beware of these threats to kids' privacy:
- Web sites may be illegally tracking kids' online activity. Kids' websites aren't allowed to collect what's called "behavioral" data -- what they click on, what pages they visit, and and other information. But Mattel and other big companies violated that rule. The companies promised to correct the errors, but tracking kids is still an issue across the internet. The problem lies partly in the fact that web sites combine a lot of different features -- advertising, sales, and product registration for example -- and each feature is intended for different audiences who aren't all subject to the same rules. You can always put your browser in incognito mode to avoid being tracked.
- Toy companies' servers can be hacked. Online outlaws can target the servers that store customers' private data. VTech suffered such a breach in November 2015 when a hacker gained access to more than 6 million accounts, including photos of kids and chat logs between kids and parents.
- Your home Wi-Fi can be hacked. Smart toys use Wi-Fi to communicate with their apps. Anything that connects to the Internet, including home appliances, baby monitors, and home-automation devices are vulnerable to attack. A website called Shodan shows how hackers can get access to devices that use Wi-Fi.
- Companies can use your data for marketing purposes. Companies collect a lot of information when you register your products. The information ranges from your name and address to your permission to allow companies to track your online movements. A lot of times, it's hard to tell what you're agreeing to.
- Companies could use the information your kid gives the toy. Hello Barbie and Smart Toy Bear are designed to respond to what your kid says. Those conversations are stored "in the cloud." Kids tell their dolls everything, so it's unnerving to think that anyone could access that information and use it for anything.
The risks of having your information accessed by a hacker are fairly low, but if this is a major concern, you should avoid smart toys.