New report says toys that 'spy' on kids are on the rise

A new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund, a national network of consumer advocacy groups, is raising the alarm about a potential rising threat posed by smart toys for children ahead of the holiday gifting season.

In a news release Thursday, the organization likened the growing toy category to spying.

"It's chilling to learn what some of these toys can do," Teresa Murray, a U.S. PIRG Education Fund consumer watchdog and co-author of the report, said in a statement. "Smart toys can be useful, fun or educational, but interacting with some of them can create frightening situations for too many families."

PHOTO: Stock photo of a child playing in a nursery. (STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Stock photo of a child playing in a nursery. (STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images)

Smart toys, such as those that can be linked to mobile apps and cameras, those with microphones, Wi-Fi capability, location trackers or more, include products as simple as toy dolls and plushes that can "listen" or "speak" to more complicated devices like drones, smart speakers, smartwatches and virtual reality headsets.

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The U.S. PIRG Education Fund said in its annual "Trouble in Toyland" report that smart toys can open the door to a variety of unknown risks for children and families, with the possibility of data breaches and hacking, potential violations of children's privacy laws, and exposure to "inappropriate or harmful material without proper filtering and parental controls."

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The consumer advocacy group recommends that parents and anyone buying a toy or gift for a child this upcoming holiday season consider the following tips:

  • Perform a web search about a smart toy and read reviews to check for any red flags.

  • Find out the features of a smart toy and what it can do. Ask questions such as, "Does it connect to Bluetooth, the internet or social media? Does it collect a child's private information? Does it record audio and video? Can it send online messages or emails?"

  • Read a smart toy's privacy policy, not just a toy company's privacy policy, and understand what kind of data is collected and how it is used.

The U.S. PIRG Education Fund is also calling in its report for more federal legislation to further protect children's online privacy and introduce stronger labeling standards for smart toys.

The group highlighted its support for the expansion of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, and the Transparency Over Toys Spying Act, or TOTS Act, which were introduced in the Senate and House earlier this year, would require the Federal Trade Commission to establish new labeling rules for smart toys, and would require toy user agreements or privacy policies to state "how personal information may be collected and used by the manufacturer or other entity."

COPPA -- which some experts worry may make the internet less safe for some children and teens by censoring important content or allowing parents to surveil them in unsafe households -- passed out of committee earlier this year and has been sent to the Senate for consideration. The TOTS Act is currently awaiting a vote in the House Innovation, Data, and Commerce subcommittee.

Consumer Reports has previously warned parents to "be cautious" when giving children smart toys to play with. The group said in a 2018 report after testing internet-connected toys that although their small sampling showed there was "no immediate threat" to children's safety, the toys did "follow a trend we see elsewhere with internet-connected devices in that companies could be doing a better job protecting customer data."

The Toy Association, a trade association representing hundreds of U.S. toy companies, including manufacturers, retailers and licensors, issued a statement this week in response to the new U.S. PIRG report.

"Because its products are intended specifically for children, the toy industry holds itself to a particularly high standard of safety," the statement read in part. "All toys sold in the United States, no matter where they are produced, must conform to rigorous safety standards and laws. Because of that, toys are among the safest consumer products found in the home."

"The Toy Association always advises families to shop from retailers and online sellers they know and trust, and to research a seller before clicking 'add to cart', as this is the best way to avoid accidentally bringing counterfeit, imitation, and otherwise unsafe products masquerading as 'toys' into the home," the statement continued.

"Responsible, legitimate toy companies ... work year-round to comply with 100+ strict federal safety standards and tests to protect children at play, including guidance within [COPPA], which is overseen by the [FTC] and includes provisions governing children’s privacy and data security."

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