Internet Security Isn’t Child’s Play

Full disclosure:  my wife and I have never had children.  The closest we have come to full-time
responsibility for someone younger than 80 was when our ten-year-old nephew
came to stay with us for part of the summer of 2013.  So what I have to say about the hazards of buying smart
Internet-connected toys for your kids is, from my point of view, entirely
hypothetical and untouched by the seasoning of personal experience.  Nevertheless, it’s a new kind of
problem and those with parental responsibilities need to be aware of it.

For the last several years, one of the biggest trends
on the consumer-electronics horizon has been the Internet of Things (IoT).  It’s now so cheap to connect tiny,
inexpensive devices to increasingly powerful cloud-computing apps on the
Internet that companies are falling over each other trying to get their IoT-enabled
gizmos to consumers.  And the
gold-rush analogy is especially apt for the toy market, which is highly
seasonal and driven by novelty even more than the rest of the consumer

When IoT came along, we began to see a flock of toys
that connect to the Internet for some of the same reasons devices for adults
do:  message sharing, video
recording, GPS-enabled location features, and so on.  But when adults use IoT-enabled equipment, there is at least
a presumption that they can read instructions and take whatever precautions are
needed to keep malign third parties from exploiting the window into your
personal life that bringing an IoT-enabled device into your home opens. 

Not so with children.  A recent story in the Washington
details how the FBI had issued a consumer notice about “smart
toys” that connect to the Internet. 
Inspired partly by recalls in Europe of a talking doll that a hacker
could use as a listening device, the FBI says that parents should be very
careful about purchasing or setting up any toy that can connect to the

While I’m not aware of any crimes that have been
shown to be committed by such means, it’s not hard to imagine such a
situation.  Organized housebreakers
could take a look around your home while little Johnny is dragging his
Internet-enabled megatherium through the living room, and use its GPS to find
just where that priceless collection of jewels from the court of Louis XIV is
kept on display.  Even creepier is
the notion that a crook bent upon kidnaping or worse could start talking to
your daughter through her doll:  “Yes,
I want you to meet a friend of mine. 
He’s waiting right outside the front door.  Mommy’s asleep, isn’t she?  Come on outside . . . .”  Sounds like a bad horror film, but the technology is there

The FBI’s recommendations are not surprising, for the
most part:  know whether the toy
you’re thinking of buying has been reported for problems with security, read
the disclosures and privacy policies provided with the toy (if any), monitor
your child’s activity with the toy, use good password hygiene, don’t tell the
company any more than you have to when setting up the toy to work through your
wireless system, etc.  Some of this
advice falls in the wouldn’t-it-be-nice category, such as reading disclosure
and privacy policies.  First, hire
a lawyer to interpret the policy, if it’s written like most boiler-plate
software agreements.  And while
monitoring a child’s use of the toy is a good idea, parents can be only one
place at a time, and one reason for buying a child toys is so they can amuse
themselves and not depend on you to be there fending off boredom for them every
second.  Or at least that’s the
impression I get from a few parents I know.

The hazards of smart toys are just one more chink in
the Swiss cheese of what used to be armor that most parents erected around
their children.  Here’s just one
example of that armor from my own childhood, back when men were men and
megatheriums roamed the earth. 

My father was a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound repo
man for a few years.  Repossessing
cars from uncooperative borrowers is not for the faint of heart, and in a
crisis I’m sure he could cuss as well as anybody.  But until I was a teenager, I never heard a swear word pass
his lips, even when I drove my tricycle into the ladder he was using to hold a
paint can and dumped a gallon of gray oil paint all over his head.  (Well, maybe he did cuss then and I just didn’t understand what he was

The point is that he went out of his way to create a
kind of bubble of innocence or protection around us children.  There were some TV shows we couldn’t
watch and some magazines we couldn’t look at, even back in the halcyon 1960s.  Back then, of course, electronic media
had just barely started to infiltrate the home, radio and TV being the only
means of entry.  Since both my
parents were gone before the Internet really got going, I will never know what
their reaction to it would have been. 
But suffice it to say I don’t think my father’s impression of it would
have been positive.

Some ages exalt and glorify children, and others like
ours seem to treat them as kind of an optional hobby for adults, instead of the
seedbed of the next fifty to hundred years of civilization.  Like it or not, children in advanced
industrial societies are going to grow up in a world where the Internet of
Things is as routine to them as electric lights were to people my age.  The main role of parents as parents is to
prepare children to live in the world they will inhabit, and hopefully make it
a better place.  But first the
children have to survive into adulthood. 
And while the chances of anything bad happening to your child as a
result of a smart toy is remote, it’s one more thing to worry about in the
process of raising children.  And
at least we’ve been alerted to this problem before anyone has been harmed, as
far as we know. 

Sources:  Elisabeth Leamy’s article
“The danger of giving your child ‘smart toys'” appeared on Sept. 29,
2017 in the online version of the Washington

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