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Making playtime safer in the Internet of Toys

Toddler with headset playing with an electronic toy connected to the Internet.

Santa’s elves are pretty tech-savvy these days. Many of the toys on children’s wish lists this year, from dolls and trucks to robots and building blocks require a connection to the internet to operate certain features. Connected toys are marketed as offering an interactive world of opportunity for growth, education, and, yes, play.

This means toy safety is now about more than whether they break too easily or are age-appropriate. Connected toys raise new risks including the possibility that hackers could collect sensitive information your child has shared with the toy – such as their name, their school or location. Unsecured cameras or microphones could allow bad actors to watch or listen to your child – or to gather information about your family’s location and movements.

The connected toy market had sales of $7.6 billion US in 2020. It is expected to grow over the next five years, according to a report from Mordor Intelligence. These tech toys are part of the Internet of Things – which describes the physical devices that collect and share data to the internet, from gadgets like fitness trackers to the increasing number of security cameras and home digital assistants.

As with the Internet of Things, there are relatively simple steps you can take to safeguard your child’s and your family’s privacy on the Internet of Toys.

Here are some tips:

  1. Do your research – Read the manufacturer’s privacy policy to find out what information will be collected and how it will be used, as well as who will see it. Are there ways to limit the information that is collected – and will you be able to delete any of that information? Be wary of companies offering products and services with incomplete information, or none at all. If you aren’t comfortable with the information you find, contact the company for further information. If you are still not satisfied, don’t purchase or use the product or service. Also, look for reviews of the product – what are people saying about it?
  2. Secure the device – Check online for directions on how to create a guest network on your router for Internet of Things devices to reduce the impact if you are hacked. If the guest network has additional options for “isolate,” ensure that this option is checked (and conversely, if there is an option for sharing, such as “Permit Access,” ensure that it is unchecked). Change the default password on the device if there is one – these are often widely known and easily accessed by hackers. Add a password if the device doesn’t have one, and change the device’s default user name and PIN whenever possible. If you need to create an online account to use the toy, use a unique password, and only share the information that’s required. (See our Tips for creating and managing passwords.) Finally, ensure your router’s firmware is up-to-date. This can be accomplished in the configuration page of the router, and/or by visiting the manufacturer’s website.
  3. Don’t share identifying information: Use a pseudonym for your child and don’t provide his or her real birth date. Disable location trackers if possible.
  4. Turn off WiFi and Bluetooth when you’re not using the toys. Turn off cameras and microphones when the toys are not in use.
  5. Talk to your kids about privacy and the importance of not sharing too much information.

For more detailed information, read our tips for using smart devices, and check out our tips for talking with your child about online privacy.

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