Internet of Things (IoT) can pose risks to children. Parents should pay attention to what information is collected from kids and who can have access to it.

In this day and age, if a device has an “on/off” button, there is a good chance it can be connected to the internet— or will be soon enough. From machine components, to wearable technology and home appliances, everything is going online to leverage the extra computational power of the cloud. There were approximately 8.4 billion connected things in 2017, laying the foundation for 20.4 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices to be deployed by 2020, according to analyst firm Gartner.

With new frontiers come the need for new precautions, especially where your family is concerned. Children can be a risk when they interact with IoT devices, often going unmonitored, and left vulnerable to illegal information gathering and exposure to predators via hacking.

Even the FBI issued a consumer notice about Internet connected toys this summer — warning that they “could put the privacy and safety of children at risk due to the large amount of personal information that may be unwittingly disclosed”.

In October, four brands of kids GPS tracker smartwatch and their companion apps for parents to keep tabs on their kids were analyzed for a report conducted by the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC), and the findings were grim. In in, they advise that, “Any consumer looking for ways to keep their children safe and secure might want to think twice before purchasing a smartwatch as long as the faults outlined in these reports have not been fixed.”

“The Faults” include: devices with flaws that could allow a potential attacker to take control of the apps — which would then give them access to children’s real-time and historical location and personal details, and could also enable them to contact children directly, without parents’ knowledge.

A month after the NCC report was released, Germany’s Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) issued a blanket ban on smartwatches aimed at children — and asked parents who’d already purchased such a device to destroy them, for good measure.

In preparation for the holiday retail season, and working with security researchers, UK Consumer Rights group, Which?,  has spent the past 12 months investigating several popular IoT toys for sale at major retailers. They also found, “concerning vulnerabilities” in several devices that could “enable anyone to effectively talk to a child through their toy”.

Which? published detailed findings on four of the devices that they identified– the Furby Connect; I-Que Intelligent Robot; Toy-fi Teddy; and CloudPets cuddly toy — summarizing their concerns thus:

  • In all cases, it was found to be far too easy for anyone to use the toy to talk to a child
  • On each toy, the Bluetooth connection had not been secured, meaning that a  predator wouldn’t need technological acumen to ‘hack’ your child’s toy.
  • Due to advances in extending the range of Bluetooth connectivity, it is possible to set up a mobile system in a vehicle to trawl the streets hunting for unsecured toys.

Earlier this year, a petition asking Mattel not to release an advanced IoT design, called Aristotle, gained more than 17,000 signatures. Upon its initial release, Aristotle was hailed for its forward thinking– an excerpt from that January 2017 press release explains,

“Aristotle is designed with a specific purpose and mission: to aid parents and use the most advanced AI-driven technology to make it easier for them to protect, develop, and nurture the most important asset in their home—their children. Mattel will debut the Aristotle voice activated kids connected room hub and camera bundle at retail this summer.”

However, that summer 2017 release was not to be. The petition, which was organized by the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said that the device not only infringed on children’s privacy by collecting their data, but could have an unknown effect on their psychological development. It succeeded in creating enough pressure to cancel the Aristotle release for 2017, and hopefully enough to plant the seeds for a continued culture of caution in the companies that are collaborating on IoT devices for kids.

That would seem to be the case, with a reformed Mattel and Google leading the charge.

Mattel delayed the Holiday Season release of their ground-breaking tech toy, Hello Barbie Hologram, after the privacy concerns addressed by the Aristotle encouraged them to overhaul their technology strategy. Hello Barbie Hologram will be the first artificial intelligence paired with hologram aimed at the toy market, and according to the company, will be held until 2018 “due to additional testing of the platform.”

After the highly visible failure of Google Glass due to privacy concerns, Google’s new AI driven camera alternative, Google Clip, which is being explicitly marketed to parents, has been designed with privacy and safety in the foreground. Everything on Clips happens locally. Nothing is synced with Google’s cloud — unless you choose to save a file to your Google Photos. All the facial recognition happens on the device using its own processing power, not requiring a link to the recognition feature on your Google Photos account. This only slightly minimizes the convenience of a pre-programmed AI but contributes significantly to the safety of the device.

Unlike the Google Photos AI, Clip doesn’t pair faces with names, it endeavors to recognize faces it sees frequently, and also tries to ignore faces it doesn’t recognize, minimizing the privacy concerns surrounding public use that Glass could never surmount.

The photos, or clips, the camera takes are stored only on the camera itself, with no auto-syncing to your phone unless requested. They’re also encrypted on the camera, in case of loss of theft.

Both Mattel and Google have paid an economic price for early missteps in the security of IoT devices, and they seem to have learned how to incorporate a consumer safety/ family forward perspective in the development of their newest offerings. With leadership from industry titans and the watchful attention of parents and consumer groups, there can be a  bright future for the inevitable forward progress of the integration of technology into our lives, and the lives of our kids.

To learn more about this subject, read our article with reasons why parents should pay attention to children’s digital consumption. To stay up-to-date with news regarding parenting, subscribe to our blog.

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