FBI warns parents about eavesdropping dolls and hackers

Malignant things can come in the most innocent forms, according to a public service announcement released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Monday.

The FBI publicly warned parents about smart, interactive or internet-connected toys because they could be hacked and put children’s privacy at risk.

Most of these toys include some recording or tracking device, such as a sensor, camera, microphone, voice recognition or GPS. A microphone on a toy, for example, could be hacked to record personal conversations including information about your child, such as their name and where they go to school. Obtaining information like this could lead to child identity fraud, the FBI said.

There have already been instances of toy companies facing mass data breaches. In February, information from 800,000 CloudPets — a plush toy that plays children a pre-recorded message from loved ones when squeezed — was stored in a public database online. It included email addresses, passwords and almost 2.2 million voice recordings.

German authorities also banned the My Friend Cayla doll during the same month and encouraged parents to destroy it, describing the playthings as “hidden espionage devices.” The doll has microphones and asks children personal questions, and the US Federal Trade Commission warned these conversations were being recorded without parental consent.

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Smart toys are vulnerable to being hacked because the information they collect is transmitted to the manufacturer or a third party via a Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cloud service connection — an obvious point of attack. Parents can protect children’s privacy by researching toys’ security issues, where data is stored and monitoring children’s use of toys. The FBI encouraged parents to file a complaint about products at www.IC3.gov.

The FBI also stressed that toys should be turned off when not in use because this will block hackers’ ability to access the toy’s — and your child’s — information.

The warning parallels smart toys’ growing popularity. Global sales of smart toys are expected to grow by 300% from 2015 to 2020, according to analyst firm Juniper Research. In about three years, the market will be selling $11.3 billion (£8.6 billion) worth of products annually.

The firm also ranked the UK as the top buyer of smart products in 2015 — so next time you’re buying a present for someone younger than 10, take heed and avoid a cyber-Chucky.

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