Young girl cradling a doll

Children unaware of smart toys storing conversations, study finds

Image credit: Dreamstime

A University of Washington study has found that children are unaware of how their internet-connected toys record and store conversations. The authors recommended that toy manufacturers take greater measures to protect children’s privacy.

Internet-connected toys such as Hello Barbie and My Friend Cayla can interact with children like a real person, engaging them in varied, personalised and detailed conversations. These toys record their owners’ voices and store them in the cloud, helping the toys ‘learn’.

These toys may have become commercially successful, but they have been subject to scrutiny due to privacy concerns. VTech, a company which manufactures children’s tablets, underwent such scrutiny in 2015 when its database – storing data from more than 200,000 children – was hacked.

In February, the German Federal Network Agency notified parents that there was an obligation to “destroy” their children’s My Friend Cayla dolls, as they constituted an illegal concealed espionage device.

“These toys that can record and transmit are coming into a place that’s historically legally very well protected: the home,” said Dr Emily McReynolds, assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Tech Policy lab and co-lead author of the new study.

“People have different perspectives about their own privacy, but it’s crystallised when you give a toy to a child.”

The researchers conducted interviews with pairs of parents and children. Questions included whether they would tell their toys secrets, and whether they would share the conversations on social media. The team also observed the children playing with two types of internet-connected toys, Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino. These dolls have been complimented for their security measures.

The lifelike appearances of the dolls, the researchers suggest, may induce children to treat them more like a human.

“The toys are a social agent where you might feel compelled to disclose things that you wouldn’t otherwise to a computer or cell phone. A toy that has a social exterior might fool you into being less secure on what you tell it,” said Dr Maya Cakmak, an assistant professor at the school of computer science and engineering, and co-lead author.

“We have this concern for adults, and with children, they’re even more vulnerable.”

Hello Barbie parent panel

Hello Barbie parent panel/ University of Washington

Image credit: University of Washington

Most of the children in the study were not aware that their conversations with the toys were being recorded. Some of the children become troubled when told about the privacy implications of sharing secrets with their dolls. The parents were concerned about their children’s privacy, and universally expressed a desire for parental controls, such as the ability to disconnect the toys from the internet.

Based on their findings, the researchers make recommendations to toy designers and policymakers, including that designers should create a child-friendly way for the devices to notify children when their conversations are being recorded, and provide a way for recordings to be deleted.

Earlier this year, a report by the European Commission Joint Research Centre concluded that action was needed to monitor and control the emerging ‘Internet of Toys’, with privacy and security as the major areas of concern.

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