The Smart Toys – How Children Are Spied On Without Parents’ Knowledge

In a report titled “Issues in Toyland 2023,” the US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund warned about the growing danger posed by increasingly popular toys containing AI-powered spy programs.

Today, even seemingly “simpler” toys and games are equipped with data-collecting AI. They often come fitted with cameras and microphones for facial and vocal recognition, and even GPS tracking.

Many toys, such as miniature footballs and toy medical kits, come with accompanying apps and can connect to the internet or Bluetooth. For instance, Fisher Price’s smart teddy bear is aimed at children aged 3 to 8.

According to PIRG, the bear can listen, talk, and record conversations for future reference. However, in 2019, the product was pulled from the market due to the vulnerability of its app to hacking.

In October, an 11-year-old girl from New Jersey was abducted by a man who allegedly contacted her through Roblox, a popular gaming platform. She was later found safe but was located over 100 miles from her home, as reported by The New York Post. Roblox denied the two had met on the platform, according to the Daily Mail.

“It’s scary what some of these toys can do,” said Teresa Murray, co-author of the PIRG report, in a press release. “Interaction with some smart toys can create frightening situations for far too many families.”

Concerns aren’t solely about privacy. Health is also potentially at risk. For instance, PIRG mentioned the unknown effects of Virtual Reality and Meta Quest headsets. As the technology is so new, it’s too early to know how it might affect brain development.

“It just isn’t worth the risk right now,” stated Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, to PIRG.

The report recommends several precautionary measures for parents to safeguard their children:

  • As a first step, parents should know if the toy connects to the internet.
  • If the toy has a microphone or camera, parents should know when it’s recording and how they can determine if it is.
  • The report suggested scrutinizing the specific privacy policy of the toy, not just the company’s general policy.
  • Parents should research the toy company to see if it has a history of controversies or privacy concerns. Additionally, online product reviews are a way to find complaints and warnings raised by other parents, according to PIRG.

The global market for these toys reached $16.65 billion in 2023, up from $14.11 billion in 2022, as per Research and Markets, a global market research firm. It’s expected to grow further, reaching $35.11 billion by 2027.


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