Are Your Child’s Smart Toys Spying On You? Privacy Risks With Internet-Connected Toys

The growth of the Internet of things has made it possible to create an Internet of toys. Read on to know how smart toys can affect the privacy and the safety of both you and your child.

By Dr Debarati Halder

Are Your Child’s Smart Toys Spying On You? Privacy Risks With Internet-Connected Toys

With technology making inroads into every aspect of our life, toys are also undergoing a change. Smart toys are replacing the traditional ones like Barbie dolls, superhero action figures, and other play sets.

Smart toys, which may be connected to the Internet, are available in various forms like toy robots, dolls or toy cars. The typical features of these toys include functions like data storage, microphone, Bluetooth connectivity, speech recognition ability, and digital cameras. To operate these toys, users may be required to provide certain information like email id, home address, user name, password, and date of birth.

While children find these toys extremely interesting and entertaining, smart toys come with risks to privacy, similar to other smart gadgets. The problems related to privacy are compounded by the fact that the toys are operated by children, who are usually unaware of digital privacy issues.

Several researches have suggested that smart toys can be hacked or the information requested by these toys from the user can be accessed and saved by an unscrupulous manufacturer or software developer for use later.

Let us look at some privacy infringement risks that smart toys can expose children and their families to:

  1. Taking photographs: Young children prefer to keep smart toys like dolls with them at all times, as they consider these toys a trusted friend or family member. As a result, the toys accompany the children wherever they go—to the toilet, to bed, to change their dress and so on. Because of this, hackers can use the camera in smart toys to photograph children during different times like, when they are undressing, or taking a bath or in awkward positions. Such images can then be circulated on the Internet in the form of child porn. In India, the production, creation and circulation of images showing the private parts of children, using children for creating child porn, or capturing images of children in sexually explicit positions are punishable offences both under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (amended in 2008), as well as under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. However, legal provisions may not deter criminals from committing such crimes.
  2. Stalking: Hackers can use smart toys to gain access to the child and the child’s family. They can then take photographs, record conversations, and monitor the movements of the victims. In other words, smart toys can be turned into tools for spying. Women, including caregivers, mothers and female relatives of children, need to be especially careful as they may be targeted by stalkers using these toys. As a cybercrime victim counsellor, I have dealt with several cases where women have complained of receiving messages from stalkers who seemed to be aware of everything the victim was doing. The Indian Penal Code has been amended to introduce provisions to criminalise stalking, including cyberstalking. Similarly, the POCSO Act also offers penal provisions for stalking children. However, the number of individuals who report cases of stalking are still low in India. It is, therefore, necessary that if you suspect being stalked, consider reporting it to the law enforcement agencies and taking precautionary steps to prevent virtual as well as online privacy infringement by checking cyber security loopholes.
  3. Providing unauthorised access to personal data: Often, we use the same email id, phone numbers and security codes, which we use for purposes like Internet banking, to operate other gadgets connected to the Internet, including smart toys. This may present a security threat. For, if the web applications controlling the smart toy is accessed by hackers, they may even get access to our personal data like banking details. Even though the Information Technology Act, 2000 (amended in 2008), addresses the issue of unauthorised access and causing damage to data and/or reputation (very loosely) as both a civil and criminal offence, the victims of hacking may find it very difficult to establish how the data was accessed if they are unaware of the risks posed by smart toys.

While smart toys do pose the abovementioned, and more, hazards, it doesn’t mean that children should be denied a chance to own smart toys. We must always remember that, as aware and alert parents, we can make smart toys safe for our children by managing how our children handle them and play with them. Furthermore, we should also make our children aware of the risks smart toys can pose to our privacy and security if not handled carefully.

Dr Debarati Halder is the Honorary Managing Director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling (www.cybervictims.org). She is also working as Professor & Head of the Department of Research, Unitedworld School of Law, Karnavati University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. She can be reached at ccvcindia@gmail.com

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