Full disclosure: my wife and I have never had children. The closest we have come to full-time responsibility for someone younger than 80 was when our 10-year-old nephew came to stay with us for part of the summer of 2013.
So what I have to say about the hazards of buying smart internet-connected toys for your kids is, from my point of view, entirely hypothetical and untouched by the seasoning of personal experience. Nevertheless, it's a new kind of problem and those with parental responsibilities need to be aware of it.
For the last several years, one of the biggest trends on the consumer-electronics horizon has been the Internet of Things (IoT). It's now so cheap to connect tiny, inexpensive devices to increasingly powerful cloud-computing apps on the internet that companies are falling over each other trying to get their IoT-enabled gizmos to consumers.
And the gold-rush analogy is especially apt for the toy market, which is highly seasonal and driven by novelty even more than the rest of the consumer business.
When IoT came along, we began to see a flock of toys that connect to the Internet for some of the same reasons devices for adults do: message sharing, video recording, GPS-enabled location features, and so on. But when adults use IoT-enabled equipment, there is at least a presumption that they can read instructions and take whatever precautions are needed to keep malign third parties from exploiting the window into your personal life that bringing an IoT-enabled device into your home opens.
Not so with children.
A recent story in the Washington Post details how the FBI had issued a consumer notice about “smart toys” that connect to the Internet. Inspired partly by recalls in Europe of a talking doll that a hacker could use as a listening device, the FBI says that parents should be very careful about purchasing or setting up any toy that can connect to the Internet.
While I'm not aware of any crimes that have been shown to be committed by such means, it's not hard to imagine such a situation. Organized housebreakers could take a look around your home while little Johnny is dragging his internet-enabled megatherium through the living room, and use its GPS to find just where that priceless collection of jewels from the court of Louis XIV is kept on display.
Even creepier is the notion that a crook bent upon kidnapping or worse could start talking to your daughter through her doll: “Yes, I want you to meet a friend of mine. He's waiting right outside the front door. Mommy's asleep, isn't she? Come on outside…” Sounds like a bad horror film, but the technology is there already.
The FBI's recommendations are not surprising, for the most part: know whether the toy you're thinking of buying has been reported for problems with security, read the disclosures and privacy policies provided with the toy (if any), monitor your child's activity with the toy, use good password hygiene, don't tell the company any more than you have to when setting up the toy to work through your wireless system, etc.
Some of this advice falls in the wouldn't-it-be-nice category, such as reading disclosure and privacy policies. First, hire a lawyer to interpret the policy, if it's written like most boiler-plate software agreements. And while monitoring a child's use of the toy is a good idea, parents can be only one place at a time, and one reason for buying a child toys is so they can amuse themselves and not depend on you to be there fending off boredom for them every second. Or at least that's the impression I get from a few parents I know.
The hazards of smart toys are just one more chink in the Swiss cheese of what used to be armour that most parents erected around their children. Here's just one example of that armour from my own childhood, back when men were men and megatheriums roamed the earth.
My father was a six-foot-two, 200-pound repo man for a few years. Repossessing cars from uncooperative borrowers is not for the faint of heart, and in a crisis I'm sure he could cuss as well as anybody. But until I was a teenager, I never heard a swear word pass his lips, even when I drove my tricycle into the ladder he was using to hold a paint can and dumped a gallon of gray oil paint all over his head. (Well, maybe he did cuss then and I just didn't understand what he was saying.)
The point is that he went out of his way to create a kind of bubble of innocence or protection around us children. There were some TV shows we couldn't watch and some magazines we couldn't look at, even back in the halcyon 1960s. Back then, of course, electronic media had just barely started to infiltrate the home, radio and TV being the only means of entry.
Since both my parents were gone before the internet really got going, I will never know what their reaction to it would have been. But suffice it to say I don't think my father's impression of it would have been positive.
Some ages exalt and glorify children, and others like ours seem to treat them as kind of an optional hobby for adults, instead of the seedbed of the next 50 to 100 years of civilization. Like it or not, children in advanced industrial societies are going to grow up in a world where the Internet of Things is as routine to them as electric lights were to people my age. The main role of parents as parents is to prepare children to live in the world they will inhabit, and hopefully make it a better place.
But first the children have to survive into adulthood. And while the chances of anything bad happening to your child as a result of a smart toy is remote, it's one more thing to worry about in the process of raising children. And at least we've been alerted to this problem before anyone has been harmed, as far as we know.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.