Toys Connected to the Internet Allegedly Collect and Use Children's Personal Information
Image: Pexels

Toys Connected to the Internet Allegedly Collect and Use Children's Personal Information

Consumer groups have filed a complaint with the FTC over concerns about the safety of the toys

December 7, 2016

As the Internet of Things expands to include items designed for children as well as adults, concerns have arisen over the safety of toys connected to the Internet.

ConsumerAffairs reports that several consumer groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over two interactive dolls—My Friend Cayla and I-Que Intelligent Robot, both of which are produced by Genesis Toys—that they claim collect and use children's personal information.

"This complaint concerns toys that spy. By purpose and design, these toys record and collect the private conversations of young children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal information," the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Center for Digital Democracy, and Consumers Union said in the complaint. "They pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States."

The conversations between children and the "talking" dolls are stored by a company called Nuance Communications, which then sends them to Genesis Toys to undergo analysis that ostensibly will improve the performance of the toys. The groups claim, however, that this violates the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires children younger than 13 to have parental consent before sharing any kind of personal information with an online service.

Consumerist reports that Nuance, best known for its speech-to-text dictation software marketed under the Dragon brand, is also a "defense contractor that sells products, including 'voice biometric solutions,' to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies."

Advocates claim that any voice data that the toys collect cannot be shared without the consent of the child's parents, writes ConsumerAffairs. Bluetooth connects the dolls to mobile apps, but Genesis might not go far enough in ensuring that the child's parents have authorized the collection of data.

On the companion app for the Cayla doll, permission is requested for accessing the hardware, storage, microphone, WiFi connections, and Bluetooth capabilities on users' devices. However, the groups allege that the app "fails to disclose to the user the significance of obtaining this permission." It simply requests that users solve a math problem that never changes: 11 + 16.

"Genesis makes no effort to verify or ensure that the person providing consent is the parent," said the groups. "Requiring users to periodically answer a simple mathematical equation when opening the Cayla application has no relevance to the identity or age of that user and is not reasonably calculated to ensure consent of the child's parent."

The complaint further alleges that the app for i-Que also requests access to the mobile device's camera, a request that "is not necessary to the toy's functions and is not explained or justified."

The information that the dolls collect is translated into text and send over the Internet, said the groups, enabling unauthorized parties to potentially access the communications.

Some of the groups that filed the complaint also believe that one toy might be programmed to advertise Disney products to kids. According to The Boston Globe, the Cayla doll sometimes calls The Little Mermaid its favorite movie and says that it loves visiting Disneyland.