Playthings record, collect private conversations of young children
Dec 6, 2016 by BOB UNRUH
The Electronic Privacy Information Center previously has complained to the federal government about Web-linked devices that allow companies to spy on Americans.
It has raised questions over the “Internet of Things,” through which devices from smartphones to DVR machines are interconnected, those “always on” devices like televisions that respond to voice commands – even when their powered down, and more.
Now it’s turning its attention to My Friend Cayla.
That’s a doll offered by Genesis Toys.
The company declined comment to WND, but it boasts on its website, “My Friend Cayla is a beautiful 18″ interactive doll that offers hours of imaginative play! Cayla can understand and respond to you in real-time about almost anything. Ask her questions about herself, people, places, and things. She’s the smartest friend you will ever have.”
Those claims, and the doll’s performance, on Tuesday prompted EPIC to file a landmark complaint with the Federal Trade commission about “toys that spy.”
The allegation is that such toys put children across the nation under intense and constant surveillance, and violate federal privacy law.
“The toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance,” the group said in a statement about its complaint regarding Genesis, and the company that monitors children’s comments, Nuance Communications.
“Both Genesis Toys and Nuance Communications unfairly and deceptively collect, use, and disclose audio files of children’s voices without providing adequate notice or obtaining verified parental consent in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act … the COPPA Rule, and Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act,” EPIC’s complaint to the FTC explains.
“It is incumbent upon the Federal Trade Commission to take action in this matter, and to enjoin Genesis Toys and Nuance Communications from such unlawful activities.”
The charge alleges that the toys “are deployed in homes across the United States without any meangingful data protection standards. They pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States.”
It continued, “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.”
Joining EPIC in the request were the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy. Also Consumer’s Union and the Institute for Public Representation.
The toy maker’s i-QUE Intelligent Robot also is part of the company’s suspect products, the request for an investigation suggests.
The companion paperwork for My Friend Cayla requests permission to access the hardware, storage, microphone, Wi-Fi connections, and Bluetooth on users’ devices, but fails to disclose to the user the significance of obtaining this permission, said the submission, which also seeks injunctive relief.
“After establishing a Bluetooth connection with the Cayla and/or i-Que doll, the mobile application connects the doll to the Internet. The Cayla and i-Que applications record and collect conversations between the dolls and children. 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.”
Some of the pre-programming includes promotions for Disney, such as Cayla telling children her favorite movie is “The Little Mermaid” and her favorite song is “Let it Go,” from “Frozen.”
It also is pre-programmed to tell children stories and play games.
Among the details it seeks during signup are the child’s name, parents’ names, favorite program and meal, location of school, favorite toy and “the place I live in …”
EPIC noted, however that Nuance services and products also “include biometric solutions sold to military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
“The failure to employ basic security measures to protect children’s private conversations from covert eavesdropping by unauthorized parties and strangers creates a substantial risk of harm because children may be subject to predatory stalking or physical danger,” the complaint warns. “This injury could not reasonably be avoided because children and parents receive no indication that the doll is connected to a device via Bluetooth.
“This failure to employ basic security measures to prevent unauthorized Bluetooth connections is not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition. Therefore, Genesis’ inadequate security measures with respect to My Friend Cayla and i-Que’s Bluetooth technology constitutes unfair acts or practices in violation of [federal law],” it said.
WND previously reported when the FTC said developers of applications for smart phones need to tell consumers their spy software can monitor them.
“These apps were capable of listening in the background and collecting information about consumers without notifying them,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection at that time. “Companies should tell people what information is collected, how it is collected, and who it’s shared with.”
The FTC said its letters “warn the app developers that if their statements or user interface state or imply that the apps in question are not collecting and transmitting television viewing data when in fact they do, that the app developers could be in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.”
Previously, the group spotlighted Mattel’s “Hello Barbie,” a WiFi-connected doll with a built-in microphone.
“Hello Barbie records and transmits children’s conversations to Mattel, where they are analyzed to determine ‘all the child’s likes and dislikes.’ … Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ won’t only be talking to a doll, they’ll be talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” EPIC reported.
Samsung’s Internet-connected SmartTV also has a built-in mic that always is on and “routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes.”
“When the voice recognition feature is enabled, everything a user says in front of the Samsung SmartTV is recorded and transmitted over the Internet to a third party regardless whether it is related to the provision of the service.”
Then there’s Microsoft. Its voice and motion recorder called Kinect “is now installed in Xbox video-game consoles.”
“The Kinect sensor tracks and records users’ voice and hand gestures when users say the word ‘Xbox’ followed by various permissible command options.”