​Spying smart toys – How to protect your kids from exposure online

Barbie transmits your conversations out of your home and on to the internet. But who's listening?

Who is Barbie working for?

Who is Barbie working for?

In today’s day and age we see a huge amount of excitement around finding the biggest and best presents for kids. Not only this, children are encouraged to surf the web and use mobile apps from a young age. We are seeing toddlers trading toy cars and stuffed animals for tablets and mobile devices. Children are so attracted to having games and electronic devices to play with, they unwittingly give over their personal details without a second thought. Children are now so au fait with technology that it’s not unusual for children under the age of 4 to play with their tablets, mobile devices and watching TV right before bed.

Even where old school toys prevail, we’re seeing them ‘upgraded’ for today’s high tech hungry kids. An example of this is through toymakers Mattel, who have created a smart, artificial intelligence (A.I.) wired Barbie. ‘Hello Barbie’ talks to children, while showing off her new curvy figure – her thighs have been thickened slightly to fit a rechargeable battery in each leg, while a mini-USB charging port is tucked into the small of her back. Finally, a microphone hidden in her necklace records conversations and questions from kids who interact with her. This data is transmitted to computer servers and is converted into text. The line of text that best fits the scenario is chosen and is then delivered back to the listener, all in the matter of a few seconds. But what if Barbie could record and store whole conversations?

With Mattel launching the first Internet-connected Barbie doll, they’ve perhaps unwittingly also opened up a line of communication between children and hackers. Unfortunately, children, who are very trusting in nature, are likely to continue to be easy targets. So what can parents do to avoid exposing their children online?

  • Understand exactly how the gadget works – how does it connect to the Internet, what data can it access, where is that data stored and under what circumstances? Do proper research on the new toy and weigh up the risks and benefits – can this toy turn into a privacy hazard? Using data collected from the toy, could someone infiltrate the home Wi-Fi network to snoop on private conversations and steal other personal information?
  • If you decide to buy it, or if, perhaps more likely, the child persists in their need for the toy (!), carefully read the privacy statement before activating the toy and connecting it to the web. Children can easily bypass parental consent on websites, as the security of parental consent is rarely strictly enforced by site operators. Tracking software and spyware on websites can construct very detailed consumer profiles of children.
  • Think twice about whether children really need to disclose correct, yet sensitive information to each service that asks for it. For instance, was it necessary to tell ‘Hello Barbie’ the real dates of birth of the children? Sometimes, fudging your sensitive information is a justifiable course of action.
  • With so many temptations, it’s also important to educate kids and teens on the risks they face when dealing with smart Internet-connected gadgets.

Cybersecurity is a complex, entangled subject. But it’s best to start discussing online safety with your kids at an early age, when they’re first discovering the Internet. Walk them through the basics: what is the Internet? Why are there bad guys and who are they? How do they protect themselves? How can they set strong passwords?

Teach them about the implications of posting private information about themselves. While their activities can appear fun, oversharing on the internet can also pose a threat to privacy.

Lastly, advise them to have the same responsible, considerate behavior on the Internet as if they were talking to someone face to face, in the real world. Etiquette is as equally important online as it is offline.

Alexandra Gheorghe is Security Specialist from Bitdefender

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Alexandra Gheorghe

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