Privacy and consumer watchdog groups have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about toys that are insecure enough to be used to spy on children easily. The targets of the complaint are Genesis Toys, the maker of My Friend Cayla and i-Que, and Nuance Communications, a third-party provider of voice recognition technology who also supplies products to law enforcement and the intelligence community.
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 toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance and are deployed in homes across the United States without any meaningful data protection standards. They pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States.
The complaint requests that the FTC investigate Genesis Toys for several problematic issues, ranging from easy unauthorized Bluetooth connections to the toys within a 50-foot range, to the difficulty of locating the Terms of Service. Many findings appear to violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and FTC rules prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices. These include collection of data from children younger than 13, vague descriptions of voice collection practices in the Privacy Policies, and contradictory/misleading information regarding third-party access to voice recordings.
Cayla’s companion app invites children to input their physical location, as well as their names, parents’ names, school, and their favorite TV shows, meals and toys. The complaint highlights that it’s unclear how long the manufacturer will hold this data, and if they will ever delete it even if requested:
The Privacy Policies for Cayla and i-Que state that Genesis does not retain personal information for “longer than is necessary.” The scope of what is “necessary” is undefined. Genesis permits users to request deletion of personal information the company holds about them, but advises users that “we may need to keep that information for legitimate business or legal purposes.”
Disturbingly, the complaint notes that each of the toys can be heavily compromised by two unauthorized phones working in tandem:
Researchers discovered that by connecting one phone to the doll through the insecure Bluetooth connection and calling that phone with a second phone, they were able to both converse with and covertly listen to conversations collected through the My Friend Cayla and i-Que toys.
BEUC, a European consumer organisation, have today joined the effort against the manufacturers by complaining to the European Commission, the EU network of national data protection authorities, and the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network.
It should be noted that Danelle Dobbins, then a Master’s student at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote about Cayla’s glaring security problems in a 2015 paper. Dobbins draws attention to the work of Ken Munro, a security specialist who hacked Cayla at the beginning of 2015 as seen in the below video (via the BBC).
The complaint further notes that children are being surreptitiously marketed to:
Researchers discovered that My Friend Cayla is pre-programmed with dozens of phrases that reference Disneyworld and Disney movies. For example, Cayla tells children that her favorite movie is Disney’s The Little Mermaid and her favorite song is “Let it Go,” from Disney’s Frozen. Cayla also tells children she loves going to Disneyland and wants to go to Epcot in Disneyworld.
This product placement is not disclosed and is difficult for young children to recognize as advertising. Studies show that children have a significantly harder time identifying advertising when it’s not clearly distinguished from programming.
The toys’ voice recognition feature comes from Nuance, who also offers products and services to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The most disturbing element of the complaint is the suggestion that children’s personal data and interactions could end up being used in the development of Nuance’s intelligence and law enforcement products:
Nuance uses the voice and text information it collects to “develop, tune, enhance, and improve Nuance services and products.”… Nuance’s products and services include voice biometric solutions sold to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies…. The use of children’s voice and text information to enhance products and services sold to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies creates a substantial risk of harm because children may be unfairly targeted by these organizations if their voices are inaccurately matched to recordings obtained by these organizations.
This could be one of those moments that causes a policy reaction. While negative press may have an impact on the individual companies and their sectors, the only methods that can truly help prevent more of these kinds of unsafe products is regulation and the threat of lawsuit. Let’s hope that policymakers and regulators use this opportunity to scare other toy makers, demonstrate the power of sanction, punish the bad actors, and increase the potency of data security and children’s safety regulation.