Germany has taken steps to allay concerns about how the “Internet of Toys” could put children in harm’s way.
This past December, consumer groups concerned with child safety petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to look into a hot new doll, named My Friend Cayla, and its counterpart marketed to boys, i-Que Intelligent Robot. Privacy advocates expressed concern about the dolls’ capacity to spy on children.
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And now German authorities have banned these two internet-connected toys on grounds that they “subject young children to ongoing surveillance … and pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children.”
German authorities warned parents not to allow Cayla or i-Que in their homes.
“The Bundesnetzagentur has taken action against unauthorized wireless transmitting equipment in a children’s toy and has already removed products from the market,” the agency said in a statement attributed to Bundesnetzagentur President Jochen Homann. Bundesnetzagentur is the German regulatory office for electricity, gas, telecommunications, post and railway markets.
Germany warns of spying
Items that conceal cameras or microphones “are capable of transmitting a signal and, therefore, can transmit data without detection and compromise people’s privacy. This applies in particular to children’s toys. The Cayla doll has been banned in Germany,” Homann said.
The statement continued: “Any toy that is capable of transmitting signals and that can be used to record images or sound without detection is banned in Germany. The first toys of this type have already been taken off the German market at the instigation of the Bundesnetzagentur and in cooperation with distributors.
“There is a particular danger in toys being used as surveillance devices: Anything the child says or other people’s conversations can be recorded and transmitted without the parents’ knowledge. A company could also use the toy to advertise directly to the child or the parents. Moreover, if the manufacturer has not adequately protected the wireless connection (such as Bluetooth), the toy can be used by anyone in the vicinity to listen in on conversations undetected.”
The German agency put other toymakers on notice that their connected toys would be subject to review, too.
The toymaker, Genesis Toys, did not respond to email queries for comment. In December, U.S. consumer groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate My Friend Cayla and i-Que.
“Product safety is no longer just about a small toy that you are afraid your kid will choke on,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, at the time. “It’s about how the products are designed and what they might be doing with your children’s information.”
Bluetooth is conduit
Cayla and i-Que engage in simulated conversations with children. They use Bluetooth to connect to smartphones and gain access to the internet.
“A child’s statements are converted into text, which is then used by the application to retrieve answers using Google Search, Wikipedia and Weather Underground,” the complaint says.
The toys are available from many U.S. retailers. On one product page, they are described as appropriate for children ranging from age 3 to 12.
“Via speech recognition technology, Cayla can understand and respond to your child in real-time about almost anything,” the page says. “She can tell stories, play games, share photos from her photo album, and can sing, too. She can even help your child with their homework questions.”
U.S. agency asked to act
The consumer groups—including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, and Consumers Union—claim that the devices record children’s conversations “without any limitations on collection, use or disclosure” of the personal information.
They say the Genesis toys violate the Child Online Protection Act, and the Federal Trade Commission should step in immediately.
Genesis Toys claims that My Friend Cayla has amassed over 1 million fans worldwide, according to the complaint.
The consumer groups also say the toys don’t employ basic Bluetooth security, such as requiring a pairing code.
“As a result, when the Cayla and i-Que dolls are powered on and not already paired with another device, any smartphone or tablet within a 50-foot range can establish a Bluetooth connection with the dolls,” it says. That opens the door to strangers in close proximity being able to use the doll to connect with the child using it, the groups allege.