FBI issues rare alert warning parents of privacy risks with smart toys

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a rare alert to parents about “smart toys,” that is, those that connect to WiFi, and may contain microphones, sensors, and other information-gathering capacities. The alert states that these kinds of toys could pose risks to childrens’ privacy and safety.  The alert, issued 17 July, 2017, states:

“Smart toys and entertainment devices for children are increasingly incorporating technologies that learn and tailor their behaviors based on user interactions. These toys typically contain sensors, microphones, cameras, data storage components, and other multimedia capabilities – including speech recognition and GPS options. These features could put the privacy and safety of children at risk due to the large amount of personal information that may be unwittingly disclosed.”

WPF raised similar privacy and safety concerns two years ago regarding connected toys, noting that when childrens’ private conversations with the toy were saved to the cloud and stored there for later access, it created risk on multiple fronts. Some downplayed the issues we raised, saying that precautions had been taken. With this alert now published, it is reasonable to conclude that we can all be quite sure that the risks are real, and that great care needs to be taken when bringing a smart toy into a home.

WPF’s Tips for Parents

The FBI alert contains a list of tips for parents who decide to go ahead and purchase an Internet-connected smart toy.  We have included the tips in their entirety in this post, just below. The tips that WPF would add to the FBI’s list are:

  • It will take some quality time and some research to figure out if a smart toy presents a risk. If you do not have the time to spend, or do not feel like you have enough technical expertise, consider not purchasing a smart toy at this time.
  • Pay particular attention to where the privacy policy says that the information is going, where it will be kept, by what company, and for how long. The ideal is that the information stays with the toy only, and does not get sent anywhere. The moment data gets sent to a third party, that introduces risk.
  • Will you be able to see pictures the toy has captured? Will you be able to hear or read transcripts of conversations? Will the toy give out geolocation? These are the kinds of things that signal increased risk.
  • Privacy policies, when they are available, do not guarantee privacy. Privacy policies can also be tricky to read and interpret. If you have any questions at all, consider skipping the toy.

FBI’s Tips for Parents

Here are the FBI’s tips, excerpted from Consumer Notice: Internet-connected toys could present privacy and contact concerns for children, available at: https://www.ic3.gov/media/2017/170717.aspx

“The FBI encourages consumers to consider the following recommendations, at a minimum, prior to using Internet-connected toys.

  • Research for any known reported security issues online to include, but not limited to:
  • Only connect and use toys in environments with trusted and secured Wi-Fi Internet access
  • Research the toy’s Internet and device connection security measures
    • Use authentication when pairing the device with Bluetooth (via PIN code or password)
    • Use encryption when transmitting data from the toy to the Wi-Fi access point and to the server or cloud
  • Research if your toys can receive firmware and/or software updates and security patches
    • If they can, ensure your toys are running on the most updated versions and any available patches are implemented
  • Research where user data is stored – with the company, third party services, or both – and whether any publicly available reporting exists on their reputation and posture for cyber security
  • Carefully read disclosures and privacy policies (from company and any third parties) and consider the following:
    • If the company is victimized by a cyber-attack and your data may have been exposed, will the company notify you?
    • If vulnerabilities to the toy are discovered, will the company notify you?
    • Where is your data being stored?
    • Who has access to your data?
    • If changes are made to the disclosure and privacy policies, will the company notify you?
    • Is the company contact information openly available in case you have questions or concerns?
  • Closely monitor children’s activity with the toys (such as conversations and voice recordings) through the toy’s partner parent application, if such features are available
  • Ensure the toy is turned off, particularly those with microphones and cameras, when not in use
  • Use strong and unique login passwords when creating user accounts (e.g., lower and upper case letters, numbers, and special characters)
  • Provide only what is minimally required when inputting information for user accounts (e.g., some services offer additional features if birthdays or information on a child’s preferences are provided)”

Again, the full alert is available here.

If you have already purchased a smart toy and have concerns that your child’s information has been compromised, file a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center, www.IC3.gov. If you have questions about filing a complaint, and what it entails, the IC3 has a FAQ here: https://www.ic3.gov/faq/default.aspx.

More information:

FBI Consumer Notice: Internet-connected toys could present privacy and contact concerns for children, available at: https://www.ic3.gov/media/2017/170717.aspx