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Are China’s Smart Toys Spying on Your Kids?

Toys are no longer toys. Those cute dolls now come with hidden cameras.

The global smart-toys market is expected to reach $24.65 billion by 2025, according to Hexa Research. The researchers appear to think that this is a good thing; smart toys, they suggest, play a key role in “developing the mental, physical and intellectual skills of children, and “act as interactive toys which engage the users, particularly, children into some course of action and challenge them to think, feel and react accordingly.”

Some smart toys are indeed good for children. However, it’s important to remember that these “toys,” which automatically link to the internet, gather inordinate amounts of information on users. Many are equipped with cameras and microphones, allowing the devices to interact with young kids and manipulate impressionable minds. More worryingly, China—a country known for mass surveillance and abusing data—produces 80 percent of the world’s toys and is spearheading the smart-toy revolution. One thing is clear: There is absolutely nothing “smart” about letting a Chinese-made smart toy enter your home.

Smart toys use artificial intelligence (AI), one form of which is called “machine learning.” Machine learning allows machines, including smart toys, to automatically “learn” from past data and use that data to become “smarter.” The more data the “toy” collects, the better it gets to know a child. But, it’s not really the toy that’s getting to know the child—it’s outside forces who wish to mine our minds for sensitive information.

Last year, singer and chair of the World Economic Forum’s Smart Toy Awards’ judging committee Will.i.am, had this to say at CNBC’s Evolve Global Summit: “As an AI toy starts to learn the child, this means the toy in the next 15 years will be smarter than the parent and gather all this data that could one day hurt the child.”

That’s right—”hurt the child.” How so?

Well, data is a massively exploitable asset. The more of it you have, the more you can manipulate the masses. Data is to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th. As authors at Wired magazine noted, “for those who see Data’s fundamental value and learn to extract and use it there will be huge rewards.” Modern data—capital-D Data, as Wired would have it—involves knowing every single detail about a person, from their favorite color and music, to their thoughts on family, school, community, and even their country. With this Data, children can be targeted with very specific messages from unscrupulous actors.

Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, folks, where the weaponization of metadata is a given. As a panel of experts at the AFCEA TechNet Cyber conference in 2020 warned, “massive amounts of sensitive information on U.S. citizens are being collected, created, shared, bought and sold, and in some cases used as a weapon by the country’s adversaries”—one of which, of course, is China. In fact, China now appears to be the most powerful data broker in the world.

Just like Alexa and Siri, smart toys can be a force for good. They can also act as Trojan horses. Up until 2017, Genesis Toys, a world-renowned toy company, sold a doll called My Friend Cayla that was ostensibly designed to help kids by listening and responding to their inquiries. However, My Friend Cayla was no friend at all: Instead of helping children, the doll recorded all conversations, including conversations between kids, parents, and siblings, and shared that data with third-party companies. The German government acted quickly, completely banning the toy and labeling it a hidden espionage device. Parents who had purchased the doll were ordered to destroy it. The doll massacre of 2017 should never be forgotten.

As senior research analyst and privacy expert Stephanie Wissink told CNBC, there “are severe consequences around child protection laws.” Once a company (or country) starts “creating a technology profile of a child, you are crossing a privacy line.” Which brings us back to China, a country that regularly crosses ethical lines and where technological profiling is rampant.  Last summer, the Chinese Communist Party tightened its control over tech companies, ordering the big players—like ByteDance, Tencent and Alibaba—to share all of their data with Beijing. Guess what? All three of these companies are leading the way in smart-toy production.

Toys are no longer toys. Many of those cute dolls now come with hidden cameras. They are essentially spying devices masquerading as something benign. Don’t be fooled. Today, even Barbie is a bad actor.

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