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Fight against 'Big Brother' surveillance toys gets serious

Privacy organizations have been campaigning in the United States for several years for regulations to protect children from internet-connected “smart” toys such as dolls and games that enable the manufacturers to listen to their playtime.

Now the effort is going global.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center is urging the European Commission to ensure that children will not be exposed to surveillance while playing.

“Connected toys expose children to greater harms than the non-connected toys covered under the [Commission] Directive. The European Commission should revise the EU Toy Directive to regulate connected toys and establish mandatory safety standards to address the unique safety and security hazards they pose,” said the letter, signed by EPIC President Marc Rotenberg and others.

“There should be ‘smart’ regulations for ‘smart’ toys.”

WND reported advocacy by EPIC and others for regulations in the United States regarding toys with web-connected microphones.

The Federal Trade Commission has received complaints about toys such as “My Friend Cayla” and “I-Que Intelligent Robot.”

In 2017, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told the FTC the regulations for toys and related products are not keeping pace with “consumer and technology trends.”

He said toys that spy on kids through WiFi can deliver tantalizing information about their lives to marketers.

“I worry that protections for children are not keeping pace with consumer and technology trends shaping the market for these products,” Warner said in a letter to acting FTC Chairwoman Maureen Ohlhausen at the time.

EPIC’s new letter was in response to a request for public comments on updates to the EU Toy Directive, which sets safety guidelines to protect children but ignores connected toys.

The new letter notes that the “Internet of Things,” appliances and products connected to the internet, now includes thermostats, home lights, locks, baby monitors, security systems and even some vehicles.

And toys.

“Many IoT devices surreptitiously record private conversations in homes,” the letter said.

“Poorly secured IoT devices expose consumers to malware, ransomware, and criminal hacking that result in physical harm and harm to property,” the letter said. “Children’s toys and wearables are among the most vulnerable types of IoT devices. Recently EPIC, the European Consumer Organization, (BEUC), and the Norwegian Consumer Counsel called for U.S. and EU enforcement action against companies that sell connected toys that violate consumer privacy laws by exposing young children to continuous surveillance.”

It cited the “Cayla” doll, whose system “could be compromised to track a child’s location, communicate with children, and secretly record their conversations.”

Children’s smartwatches can do the same, the letter said.

But despite those dangers, the EU “does not currently regulate connected toys under the Toy Directive.”

EPIC contends they should be governed like similar non-connected toys, because “adding an embedded computer chip to a toy does not diminish the need for safety standards.”

Hundreds of millions of such toys already have been sold, and more are being introduced all the time. They are expected to be an $18 billion market share by 2023.

EPIC recommends rules providing basic protections, such as ensuring that personal data is protected and can be easily deleted.

“It cannot be overstated that connectivity introduces certain dangers, and that manufacturers, not consumers, must bear the responsibility to ensure the safety and security of their products,” the letter warned. “Consumers do not have enough information to evaluate products based on safety or security and companies have little incentive to maintain strong standards without regulation.”

The privacy group has push for rules along with other organizations, including the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, EPIC, Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert Program and USPIRG.

It was two years ago when EPIC first raised concerns about “Cayla.”

At the time, the manufacturer declined comment to WND, but it boasted 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.”