Privacy experts and advocates have long warned about some of the threats from the Internet of Things. Our connected smart home devices have the potential to spy on us, to gather, track, and spread our sensitive information and internet activity, and even to become a target for hackers.
Unfortunately, the increasingly common combination of IoT connectivity and a child’s toy can lead to a bone-chilling scenario in which information about your family member is shared online. Previous data breaches involving kids’ apps and IoT toys have grabbed entire customer databases of children’s information, in some cases even including names, addresses and photos of the kids.
As the Internet of Things becomes more widespread and the “it toy” of the holiday season lines the retailers’ shelves, it’s important that consumers do their research before making their purchases.
One great resource is the annual Trouble in Toyland report, which highlights a variety of dangers of popular toys. These dangers range from things like choking hazards to privacy questions, so it’s an all-encompassing type of report. In its 33 years, this report has been responsible for more than 150 toy recalls.
But when shopping for any kind of electronic or interactive toy, consumers can keep a few guidelines in mind before committing to this new purchase:
1. Do you need to register the device or create an account to use it? – Registering your new purchase can protect you in a number of ways, including recall updates and warranty validity. However, do you need to include every piece of information? Do you have to register your child’s information or create an online account in order to use this toy? That might give you pause, depending on the information requested, the age and ability of your kids, and your comfort level with their internet use.
2. Do you leave it turned on at all times in order for it to work? – If this device needs to be left powered on at all times, you might want to think about incorporating it into your household. Besides the drain on your utilities and your home data use for a toy or gadget that might not get used all the time, an “always on” device can lead to security issues. If you can power the device off completely when not in use, it will save both your budget and your privacy.
3. Is your Wi-Fi network protected? – Wi-Fi connections need to be password protected to keep outsiders from jumping into your network. However, a lot of users with IoT-connected toys and household devices overlook the need to protect their wifi routers as well. If your router—the box that makes the internet connection work for all of your wireless gadgets—is unprotected, then anyone who accesses your laptop through a virus could conceivably travel over to your other devices via the router.
As parents and grandparents, it’s understandable to want to give your young family members something from their holiday wish lists, but rushing into a purchase isn’t the best course of action. Do your research and make sure you’re bringing the device into a secure environment before buying.
There’s one final consideration to make when purchasing a new connected toy, especially if it’s an upgrade on a previous version: don’t discard any old connected toys without completely wiping their stored data and deleting any apps or accounts that powered it. If you can’t be sure that any sensitive information is gone from the device—including its usage history, stored identifying information, and more—then physically damage the internal components before discarding it. Remember to look for a responsible recycler so that potentially harmful internal materials don’t end up in the environment.