The gift that keeps giving away your data

giving away dataIf you unwrapped a shiny, new connected device this holiday season, it’s likely that you’re in the honeymoon stage, reaping many benefits from your new device. However, this story about a smart toy that is popping up on a variety of news sources makes you think twice about what happens after the initial “oohs” and “ahhs” subside.

The short version is that consumer groups have lodged a complaint with the FTC over a couple of children’s toys. And I believe, Walmart has already withdrawn the doll from their stores as a result of consumer pressure. Thank you, Walmart.

In the case of the doll, which is for sale in the US, the problems are manifold. It’s basically a clever, interactive toy that talks to your child, learns from them, and generally interacts. But, the problem starts with a security model that allows the doll to connect to any Bluetooth device in range, without the need for a passcode of some kind. That’s pretty bad for a fitness tracker aimed at adults, but for a smart toy sitting in your kid’s bedroom, it’s not just bad, it’s terrifying.

Far more concerning, however, is that the toy not only listens to your child, but then records everything and sends it to a third party as a text file for analysis. A third party that, coincidentally, offers a voice analysis service to law enforcement and the military.

Logically that makes sense – after all, you’ve built the capability to understand speech for one purpose, why not monetize it in other ways? But, the idea that any company might start to blur the lines between data collected for one purpose and data collected for another is concerning.

Annoyingly, the doll also comes with a predilection for offering up Disney products during its conversations with your child, which is possibly ethically dubious, but hardly the worst of its traits.

Here’s the rub – smart devices have enormous potential to enrich children’s lives. The ability to learn, respond, and yes, teach, is something we should be embracing. A doll that could bring to life literature and history? A doll that teaches, really teaches, kids to love reading? Sign me up! Heck, the ability for smart devices to help protect children, or keep them healthy, has barely been mooted, yet could offer huge benefits.

But these first, blundering efforts, could terminally poison the well for everyone else.

A doll that records everything it hears, and then starts asking for more details about the rest of the family (and yes, it does that) is so far beyond what we should accept as reasonable, that of course it must be rejected.

I wanted to shed light on the tremendous benefits that will come from the IoT, mainly because so often we are focused on the doom-and-gloom that the IoT may bring. This complaint by consumers to the FTC and big-box stores pulling toys from their shelves in reaction is actually pretty good news. Because we see already that, as a society, we are aware of the risks of poorly planned IoT devices, and are ready and willing to call them out. As we look toward the potential of the IoT in 2017 and beyond, knowing that citizens are starting to fully understand the risks associated with the devices they are using is a breath of fresh air.