I recently spoke with Chris Tucker about Human Robot Interaction. He is the curriculum consultant and technological education teacher with the York Region Board of Education in Ontario. We discussed how our kids’ generation has grown up using AI and how parents of young children can be challenged to explain that even though their smart toy is playing “with” them, it’s a tool, not a friend.
Then, Tucker said something that gave me pause.
“I’m not so much worried about my kids being unable to distinguish a robot from a human,” he said. “What concerns me is the data their connected toys are gathering, and where it’s going.”
Tucker is one of my resident go-tos for questions about AI, robotics, 3D printing or anything STEM-related. When he’s concerned about something, I listen.
Young people may be aware of safe internet usage, harmful content, cyberbullying and how they should represent themselves in a virtual space, but there has been very little discussion about smart toys, online speakers and other connected devices. Specifically, what data these connected toys and devices are gathering. So, while children are more aware than ever about the information they share with others, what they need to learn now is how connected toys and devices collect data from them and use it without their knowledge.
How Connected Toys Collect Data
We’re familiar with online safety. What might be less familiar is data shared in your home. Internet connectivity can now be accessed through household and personal items, a phenomenon known as the Internet of Things (IoT). And if objects are more connected, then children are being “datafied.”
“From a very early age, many aspects of a kid’s life are online,” Tucker tells Parentology. “From your Fitbit to Google Home, if you’re connected to WiFi, data can be collected about you.” Data is the new currency in a digital marketplace. What we willingly surrender for the privilege of being connected is staggering. “We’re already seeing the results of data collection on our kids, with both short-term and long-term effects.”
What does that mean? Imagine your child uses a smart toy aimed at language development. What if, regardless of whether the toy was inert or actively in use, it was collecting information and sending it back to its manufacturer to develop key insights about purchasing behavior, or how to develop future iterations of that toy?
Take, for example, Hello Barbie, a doll that uses WiFi and speech recognition technology to engage in two-way “dialogue.” Hello Barbie asks its user a series of scripted questions that could easily be used for advertising or marketing purposes:
- What’s your name?
- What’s your middle name?
- What’s your favorite restaurant?
- What’s your favorite movie?
- Are there any babies in your family right now?
“Kids using Hello Barbie aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” says Dr. Susan Linn, from commercialfreechildhood.org.
And what about data breaches and security issues? One need look no further than the CloudPets scandal of 2017, when more than 2 million voice recordings between parents and their children were hacked. (The parent company, Spiral Toys, went out of business two years ago.)
Or consider the WiFi-enabled toy CogniToys Dino, which uses unencrypted network connections and transmits microphone recordings that, if intercepted, could expose the user’s home WiFi password. “We are so willing to purchase these things for our home and our kids, with the intention of keeping everyone safe or entertained,” muses Tucker, “when we could actually be putting our family in a vulnerable situation.”
To take it a step further, imagine the data collected from your child’s smart toy was made available to people who could impact his college applications, determine his health insurance coverage, or even weigh whether or not he qualifies for a loan as an adult. “It’s not a stretch to suggest that data collected now will have long-term implications,” says Tucker. “It’s already happening.”
What Can You Do About It?
There are certainly benefits to how connected toys collect data: innovation, productivity, growth, all of which can have a significant impact on our well-being. However, our children’s generation hasn’t been given the choice to disconnect. It’s estimated that by the time your child turns 18, there will be 70,000 posts about them — some of which will have been online before they’re even born.
“It’s important to be vigilant and aware of input and output in an online world,” says Tucker. “In a way, we have to be more watchful with kids because they’re usually the first to adopt new devices.”
Tucker recommends asking some basic questions before investing in any kind of “smart” connected device. “What information will it collect? Where is the data stored and who can see it?” he suggests. If the company can’t answer the most basic questions about your device, you may want to invest in something a little less smart.
Want to Know More?
Check out this post from Mozilla, which provides a list of connected tech rated according to their security features.