FBI issues a warning to parents about the privacy and safety of internet-connected smart toys

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The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) has issued a PSA warning about the potential dangers of smart toys. The bureau encourages parents to consider cyber security before bringing internet-connect toys into the home because they could risk the privacy and safety of children.

The announcement warns of the potential for personal information to be gathered through such toys. The presence of sensors, microphones, cameras, data storage components, speech recognition and GPS, coupled with cloud storage of data, is cited as cause for concern, and parents are urged to check privacy agreements.

The IC3 warns: "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."

There have already been several incidents around the world where smart toys have been hacked, or they have been banned because of vulnerabilities that could be exploited.

The PSA does not hold back in stressing the potential dangers:

The features and functions of different toys vary widely. In some cases, toys with microphones could record and collect conversations within earshot of the device. 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.

As well as the warning, the IC3 has a number of considerations for parents to keep in mind before giving their children smart toys:

  • Research for any known reported security issues online to include, but not limited to:
  • 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)

Image credit: John Williams RUS / Shutterstock

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