As the holiday season comes around again, and everyone starts thinking about gifts to give their children, many options this year are high tech. Aside from the typically connected devices, we are so very used to; there are others that we should think through before purchasing for our kids. Now, unlike most “kids and tech gift guides” that you will see this year, I will not be saying what or what not to buy. Instead, my thought today is to simply stop, think, and consider the possibilities before you buy. A quick scroll thru major shopping website will land you a myriad of web-connected toys that you may not have given a second thought to, or even realized they were a connected device. Read the packaging thoroughly on any toy before you buy it. A few buzz words to look for are “Cloud,” “Smart,” “App,” “Social” or “Online.” These toys can be anything from teddy bears to plastic dolls to RC cars. Again, I am not saying you shouldn’t have them; I am reminding you to think through all the possible ways that your child could use the toy and be sure you are happy with all the possible outcomes. I have said before and will repeat, one of the most significant issues that older people have with younger people today is that the young people are using technology in ways that we didn’t intend or foresee and that is frankly scary to us. Have this in mind when you think about the possible ways that your kid will use that toy. I can remember when small hand-held walkie-talkies were the latest rage and parents would buy them for their children only to find out a week later that instead of playing together with them outside as we thought, the kids gave them out to the other kids in the neighborhood so they could secretly talk after bedtime. A more recent example is my son has a cell phone, and he has one friend that he talks to nonstop. When his phone was rest for a week after an issue, he was sitting for hours on Xbox live, chatting in-game with the same friend. Kids will think of ways to use the things they have the same way we creatively use tools at work. When those new devices they get as a holiday gift are also web-connected, it will not take them long to find new and unusual ways to use them. A few quick questions you can ask yourself to see if that toy or device is appropriate for the family culture you are trying to promote in your home are as follows.
1: Does this device need me to fill out an online form or create an online account? Does it require a login from an email account or a social network?
2: Does this device rely on an internet connection to start, setup or use?
3: Does this toy have a camera, and/or a microphone?
4: Does this toy require a monthly subscription?
5: Does this device advertise an ability to respond to your child in any way?
Now let’s look at these questions in depth. First, does it require a login, an account, or an online registration? This encompasses 90% of devices and toys on the market today. Even the little trinkets you get in a cereal box, or a happy meal wants you to login or to create an account. Why do I care? Simply put, an online registration form or account database is the very first attack point for a hacker to steal identity information. Quite frankly, until you fill one of these out, the people you are protecting your kids from probably don’t even know your child exists. Since toy companies don’t usually run in high margins of profit, and even if they did, they don’t spend copious amounts of money on security. Even in today’s hacker infested news cycle, toy manufacturers are much more interested in making toys and making sure they are safe for the kids physically than they are in protecting a client database. Because of this, hackers steal account information from these locations all the time, with relative impunity. Add to that the fact that most people don’t bother using different passwords for every account, when a hacker steals your email address, login account and password info along with your home address and phone number from XYZ Toy company, they will likely be able to walk right into any other account you have online. If that toy also requires a payment or subscription, then they also have your banking info or at least know which bank to try that password at. Most people don’t realize that this is how most hacks happen. If I were trying to steal your identity or bank account, I wouldn’t try to hack the government or major bank to get it. I would start by hacking your Fitbit account or Webkinz or Pokemon or local grocery store rewards card accounts, then use the info gleaned from that easy breach to simply log in to your bank. When we start an account for some toy for our kids, we are bringing that risk to a child at an age much before it may be needed. Also, we often forget about these accounts and leave them unattended online for a hacker to use later to become us. Sorry to get all tinfoil hat on you there, but these are things you should start thinking about if you want to stay safe online.
The second question is, does the device require internet to log in, set up, or use? This one is simple. Internet costs money. If you don’t have internet and you buy this toy, you will not be able to get your use out of it. Secondly, if you do have internet, but have a metered connection like cellular or satellite, then the use of this toy could count toward your data cap and end up costing you extra. Lastly, if the toy needs internet, it can become an attack surface for other nefarious activities. While those may not directly affect you or your family, awareness will help prevent them from happening at all. An example of this was a while ago when a botnet took over millions of IoT devices like smart light bulbs, plugs, and switches. These devices have notoriously low and old tech security and run on programming that is outdated and never updated. While the attacks that happened never really affected the owners of the devices, they did create several DDOS attacks which took down many major services like Sony PlayStation network and Microsoft live network over the Christmas holiday. This caused a loss for the companies and frustration for many young users trying to set up a new device on holiday break.
The third question is, does this device have a camera or a microphone? This one is quite simple; if you have a device that connects to the internet even once in a while, and contain a camera or a microphone, this is a toy that can be exploited to spy on or record your child. This is a very frightening thought, and I won’t elaborate. I shouldn’t need too. This will not bother many people who understand that privacy has not existed for many years, but others will be very put off by this. You each need to decide where you stand on this and then stay in your comfort zone, but you cant do that if you don’t realize the threat is there, present in hardware in the toy or device. This became an issue a while back when people realized that agencies could take over the built-in camera in a Samsung TV to watch and listen in on the room. I am not making this up, look it up, google it and then move forward with awareness and purpose. I am not implying that no one should have smart tv’s, I am just saying understand the threats and take whatever action you need to be comfortable in your home. With the ability to do this to a large scale commercial product like a TV from a major manufacturer with an excellent reputation, imagine how easy it would be for something like this to happen to a web-connected dolly that your child can talk to.
Fourth, Does this product or service require a monthly subscription? This is an important question for two reasons. First, if it requires a subscription and you were no wanting that or were not aware, you may be either forced into a recurring charge that you hadn’t budgeted for or you may find yourself or your child with a toy that lacks features, in other words, a broken toy. No one wants to waste money on a toy that doesn’t work, that is frustrating for the parent and the child. The second reason subscriptions should be considered pre-purchase is this, as we said before, toy companies are not highly noted for IT security. Do you want to open an account that, like above, contains personal data about you, your family and your child, held by a company with no IT budget? Do you want to add to that data stash they are keeping about you a credit or bank card? Do you want to trust a toy company with your data and your money? Again, these toy login and subscription accounts are the most likely to be outgrown, and then forgotten, never closed or purged, so the likelihood of this cool new toy account turning into an unsecured account linked to your checkbook should be something to consider and remember long term. These accounts need to be opened when needed, maintained with strong current passwords and closed when no longer needed.
The fifth and last question that I always ask before buying a new tech toy is: Can this device respond in any way to my child? I know this sounds like a weird question, however, consider this. Every device ever made is programmed by humans, and each response from any semi-or artificially aware device is also programmed and conditioned to respond to human interaction. Therefore, the reason to ask this is simple to me. Do the worldviews and ideas promoted by the programmers of this device meet or merge with my worldviews and the thoughts and opinions I find acceptable to my children. Sound odd or confusing? Well, not everyone believes in all the same things, some have differing views on issues we consider important. Case and point, several rather compelling videos are circling youtube right now regarding asking questions to Alexa, the virtual assistant in the Amazon Echo device and the responses she gives. Some of her answers are accurate, some are skewed by religious belief, some are skewed to be more politically correct, and some are just inaccurate. I am not picking on Amazon, but this is a prime example of how conversational or interactive toys can end up promoting concepts, ideas or a family culture that you are not onboard with, without ever imagining that something like a toy could do that. Another excellent example of this was many years ago after Disney’s Lion King first came out, several different Disney toys played profane recordings under certain conditions. This was the work of a disgruntled employee if my memory serves, but none the less, it is a case where something you never gave a thought to, or at least thought of as innocent, ended up creating drama and conflict inside the home during the holiday season.
I am not telling you to be afraid; I am not telling you to buy or not buy certain items, I am simply reminding you of a few things you should think about before purchasing items that may not serve as you expected. Happy Holidays and have fun shopping. Remember, the best part of the holidays are spending extra time with your family.