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The Internet of Toys: how to protect our children

By Cassie Phillips on 09 Dec, 2016

Smart toys are expected to account for 18% of both the toy and video game markets by 2018. While robot pets, drones and interactive action figures sound harmless enough, there have been plenty of instances in which various smart toys were made vulnerable to cyberattacks. One of the most well-known cases is the VTech data breach that compromised sensitive information for millions of users. There is no guarantee that your children’s privacy is protected when using smart toys, so what can parents do to protect their children’s safety and personal information?

What is the Internet of Things?

The “Internet of Things” is a term that refers to the online connectivity of many devices and gadgets. This connection allows for two-way communication between us and these devices as well as communication between various devices. For example, smart refrigerators may alert you when you are running low on certain items and smart lamps can be controlled using smartphones.

Smart Toys and Tech are on Top of Christmas Lists

Children’s toys are now joining the internet of things, as there are many new items that can connect to the internet for a more engaging or educational experience.  In fact, some of the most popular toys on this year’s Christmas lists are smart toys.

The Furby Connect is a sought-after product that connects to the Furby Connect World app, through which users can feed and play with their toy. The app requires a number of various permissions, including:

- In-app purchases

- Finding accounts on the device

- Finding contacts on the device

- Reading, modifying or deleting the contents of the device’s USB storage

- Taking pictures and videos

- Viewing networking connections

- Pairing with Bluetooth devices

- Changing network connectivity

Bloxels, Sphero and most of today’s smart toys are like Furby Connect, as they interact with mobile apps via Bluetooth and require similar permissions. These are just a few of the ways that they can compromise your internet security:

- GPS permissions can make it possible for malicious apps to load location-based malware

- Storage permissions can allow cybercriminals to store stolen information on your SD card before sending it off to a command center

- Allowing access to your contacts can make you susceptible to receiving malware and spam from spoofed email addresses. Additionally, your contacts can be put at some risk as well with the information you have on them.

The solution is to disable access to the permissions that can compromise your privacy. You should also research app permissions before purchasing smart toys and be careful to only purchase products that you feel comfortable having in your home.

Toys are becoming hacking tools for cybercriminals

As smart toys become more popular, we are seeing more cybercriminals using these products as hacking tools. In fact, Antony Walker of techUK states that any device connected to the internet could potentially be used as a spying device.

Smart toys are known to be inherently vulnerable. In recent years, a cybersecurity expert named Mark Stanislav found coding flaws in the Smart Toy Bear from Fisher-Price, which could have allowed hackers to obtain various pieces of sensitive data like birthdates, names and spoken languages. He also found a bug in the API of the hereO watch, a device that allows parents to keep track of their children’s location. While the manufacturer fixed the issue right away, it still gave hackers potential access to very important information.

Ways to Keep Your Smart Toys Safe
There are plenty of ways in which you can actively protect yourself from cyberattacks via products on the Internet of Things. These methods are quick and simple fail-proof ways to keep your personal data safe:

Strong Passwords. Prevent unauthorized parties from accessing your devices and accounts by ensuring that your passwords include a combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. Each account and device that you own should have a different password.

Antivirus and Antimalware Software for Your Home Network. This software will protect you from any software that compromises your online security. It can be installed on your mobile device or PC to keep your device (and network) safe. Just make sure to set it up properly, update it regularly and listen to its recommendations.

Setting up smart toys for optimal online security

Since most smart toys must be paired with tablets and smartphones, you’ll have to configure your device to ensure that it is safe for use by your kids. Whether your child is three years old or 13 years old, they are unlikely to know about the potential dangers of playing with toys that connect to the internet or how to operate the privacy settings of a smartphone. These steps will protect your personal information and internet connection while the toy is connected to the app:

Double-Check the Parental Controls. On your mobile and network connections, set your parental controls to filter out adult content, restrict the types of information that can be shared and set time limits for how long your children can spend online.

Disable Location Services. This will prevent any app from accessing the location of your device.

Mute Any Microphones and Block Any Webcams. Some of the sensitive information that cybercriminals want can be obtained by hacking your microphone or webcam. You can protect your privacy by disabling your audio and video functions while certain apps are running.

Disable In-App Purchases. Some smart toys offer up the ability to purchase various in-app items. If you don’t disable purchases, your child may run up quite a high bill. There have been plenty of situations in which children have amassed significant debt on apps using their parents’ credit cards, including one bill worth $5000 spent on Jurassic World and another for $46,000 on Game of War: Fire Age.

There are many ways to protect yourself from the inherent risks of the Internet of Toys. Maintain a watchful eye on the toys that your children are playing with and exercise caution when deciding which products are secure enough for use in your home. Being thorough and careful will keep you stress-free when your kids are playing with their new smart toys this Christmas. 

Cassie Phillips is a tech blogger who specialises in cybersecurity. She’s a huge fan of smart gadgets and appliances, and always employs practical safety methods to keep her personal data secure.