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Diane Dimond: Sophisticated toys that can spy

Diane Dimond

Beware the holiday gifts that can spy on you.

Sounds like an overly dire warning, you say? Well, in this evermore internet-connected world, it might surprise you how many wish list gifts come with a tantalizing lure for criminals.

“If you can connect it to your home Wi-Fi there is always the potential that someone can get in and hack it,” tech expert Andrea Smith told me the other day. She should know. As co-host of the popular “Parenting Bytes” podcast, Smith has been advising consumers for years about the latest in consumer electronics — both the good and the bad.

“If there is a camera (on a toy) they can spy on your kid,” Smith said. “If there’s a GPS locator built in they can see where you live. If there’s a microphone a criminal can hear your conversations.”

This holiday season there are countless sophisticated toys, gizmos and smart home accessories that have all those things. And chances are someone you know is drooling over the thought of getting one this year. Maybe you are.

If you get one of those voice-activated devices that automatically adjusts your thermostat or lights or plays your favorite music, just understand that the open channel of communication could be tapped into by others. And if criminal hackers were to eavesdrop while you’re talking about, say, your bank balance or an upcoming vacation, they could use that information to steal from you. The global positioning feature could tell them exactly where you live.

Among the other internet-connected products offered this year are various types of gaming consoles, exercise gadgets, interactive dolls and different types of robots (some can go spy on your brother or fetch Dad a beer). And there’s even a Bluetooth saltshaker that provides mood lighting and plays music at the dinner table.

For someone with a criminal mind and the ability to manipulate the internet, these Wi-Fi- and Bluetooth-enabled devices are a potential goldmine.

If internet intruders have more than stealing on their mind, they could activate your teenage daughter’s laptop camera in her bedroom or transmit messages to children through their toys’ speakers.

The Bluetooth-connected My Friend Cayla doll is marketed as a “friend you can talk with” via its embedded microphone. But again, it’s a two-way street. Dodgy characters could hack the doll to surveil children and clandestinely speak to them. The Cayla doll has been banned in Germany and declared a “forbidden toy.” Parents who already bought the toy have been asked to destroy them, and the new ban calls for hefty fines and jail terms. The Norwegian Consumer Council has designated Cayla as a failed toy that violates European consumer privacy laws. The company denies the toy is unsafe, and the Cayla doll is still available in the U.S.

If you’re one of those who isn’t sure about the difference between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, artificial intelligence and smart-home technology, you might want to hit the internet — what else? — and check out the Mozilla website holiday shopping guide. This tech organization believes the internet should be used to enrich lives — but not at the expense of consumers’ security and privacy. And check out Andrea Smith’s “Parenting Bytes” webpage for a thoughtful analysis of products their experts believe are consumer-friendly, especially for children.

All warnings aside, Smith admits she can’t do without her Alexa Echo voice-activated device. “Among its skills,” she said, “I wake up in the morning and ask about the weather or my commute time. When I cook I can ask it to set one timer for my rice and one for my broccoli.” And Smith says that if her mother were still alive, she’d buy her one because it can be preprogrammed to simultaneously call, text and email all emergency contacts an elderly person might have.

It really is remarkable what technology offers us these days. Companies that design these products certainly do so with customer safety and privacy in mind, but add in a crafty criminal mind and who knows what might happen? As The Mozilla Foundation Vice President of Advocacy Ashley Boyd recently wrote: “Complicating all this is the lackluster state of online privacy and security protections. In the United States … we don’t have very many rules or regulations defending consumers’ online privacy.”

As with everything we buy, ownership comes with responsibility. Since Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the driving force behind these items, for goodness’ sake, make sure you have a strong password — not your birthdate or phone number but something unique and hard to crack. And change it often.

In the meantime, happy Hanukkah and merry Christmas! May your season be filled with peace, joy and security.

To find out more about Diane Dimond, visit her website at www.dianedimond.com. Her latest book, “Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box,” is available on Amazon.com. 

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