Consumer watchdog warns some ‘smart toys’ put children’s safety, data at risk

BOSTON — A consumer advocacy group is warning parents to watch out for “smart toys” that can listen, watch, track, and collect sensitive personal data.

The Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group released its 38th annual Trouble in Toyland report and focused on the “growing threat” from toys that can spy on children.

“Anytime you have an object that you are sticking a computer inside of, it can collect data. Anytime you are hooking it up to the internet, it can then transmit that data somewhere else,” said R.J. Cross, director of MASSPIRG’s Don’t Sell My Data campaign.

Cross defines “smart toys” as toys that use cameras, microphones, or sensors and have connectivity capabilities through the internet or Bluetooth.

“This can be a problem if your child’s geo-location data is what’s leaked. That’s an immediate security concern. It can also increase the odds your family is the victim of fraud, scams, or identity theft,” Cross said.

Cross said many smart toys have unsecure Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections. MASSPIRG also raised concerns with young children using Meta’s Quest VR headset. Quest headsets can gather a lot of data about users, and playing games often requires agreeing to different third-party companies’ data practices, the report said.

“VR headsets can also gather sensitive motion data, which can be used to infer health or demographic details about you, and there’s virtually no regulation controlling how companies or other actors use this data,” the report said.

Meta sent Boston 25 a statement Friday in response to MASSPIRG’s report.

“We are committed to creating safe, positive experiences for young people on Meta Quest 3, and have collaborated with youth safety experts to help ensure an age-appropriate experience for teens and preteens on the Quest platform. Parents must set up parent-managed Meta accounts for 10-12 year olds and they control what apps their preteen can use,” a Meta Spokesperson said in an email to Boston 25.

“We do know the worlds opening up to kids right now are not the type of environments that you would want your kids to hang out in,” said Fairplay Campaign Director David Monahan. “[MASS]PIRG and Fairplay have examined these platforms and we have found they’re fraught with risks for kids.”

MASSPIRG said there are three things parents need to do:

  • Understand all of the toy’s features- Is the microphone always on? Is the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection secure? Does it collect personal information?
  • Test them out yourself so you can understand how the features work
  • Read the privacy policy- Companies by law have to transparently and clearly ask you for permission to collect data from your child before your child begins play

“Anytime a company is gathering too much data, storing it longer than necessary, or sharing with third parties, this increases the odds your child’s information will be exposed by a breach or a hack,” Cross said.

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