Skip to main content

Spy games: Could your kids’ toys be conducting surveillance on them?

Germany bans the My Friend Cayla dolls, calling them an espionage device

Image used with permission by copyright holder
Those big brown eyes of your child’s favorite teddy bear may not be as innocuous as they seem. That, at least, is the charge being levied by a number of privacy groups who late last year filed a complaint regarding the “serious lack of understanding of children’s rights to privacy and security” exhibited by a number of connected toys. So before you get too excited about introducing your tots to technology, you may want to take a closer look at just how connected these playthings really are.

According to the complaint, which was filed with both the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the European Union, Genesis Toys and its tech partner Nuance are committing “obvious breaches of several consumer laws.” The privacy groups assert that the toys i-Que and My Friend Cayla each suffer from a lack of security, which makes it possible for anyone to hack into one of the toys and listen in on the conversations it’s recording. The privacy groups further assert that the toys employ illegal user terms, which do not actually ask parents to consent to having their children’s speech recorded; and hidden marketing, which endorses a number of products in a questionable manner.

“Children are especially vulnerable, and are entitled to products and services that safeguard their rights to security and privacy,” said Finn Myrstad, head of section, digital services in the Norwegian Consumer Council. “As long as the manufacturers are not willing to take these issues seriously, internet of things technologies are not suited for toys.”

In December, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington nonprofit privacy advocacy group, added its voice to the mix. “We’re very concerned about the fact that these dolls are essentially spying on your kids’ private conversations,” Claire Gartland, director of the nonprofit’s Consumer Privacy Project told NPR. Because Cayla is able to record everything your child says, there are no secrets between your beloved and their 21st-century buddies.

“There’s all kinds of intimate details of their personal life, their parents’ personal lives. We know how kids at younger ages don’t necessarily have the same social filter,” Gartland said, “so these children could be chattering on about anything, really.”

While Nuance insisted in a blog post that it does not share voice data, this may not be enough to convince concerned parents of these toys’ safety.

It certainly wasn’t enough for German regulators, who decided to ban the doll altogether, calling it an “espionage device.” On Friday, Jochen Homann, the president of Germany’s Federal Network Agency (the Bundessnetzagentur) announced that selling the toy in the European nation would henceforth be illegal and further noted that the agency has a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of society — children.

While it’s not yet banned in the U.S., the doll is rather hard to find. You can buy it online on Amazon but you won’t find it at Toys R Us or Walmart.

So what should you do if you have an i-Que or My Friend Cayla for your kids? You could try to complain and return it to the store, if you feel unsafe with it around your children. Or, if you’d rather keep it, just make sure to turn it off when it’s not in use.

“With internet-connected devices gaining ground, market supervision will become increasingly complex,” said Monique Goyens, director general of The European Consumer Organization (BEUC). “The challenge to make sure EU consumers are properly protected is huge and cooperation between authorities and consumer organizations is key. The fact that business malpractices do not halt at the border is making this task even harder.”

Article originally published in November 2016. Updated on 02-17-2016: Added news that My Friend Cayla has been banned in Germany.

Editors' Recommendations

Lulu Chang
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Fascinated by the effects of technology on human interaction, Lulu believes that if her parents can use your new app…
Best Nespresso deals: cheap espresso machines starting at $120
Breville-Nespresso USA Nespresso Creatista Plus Coffee Espresso Machine

Every coffee lover needs a little help starting the day, and one brand that stands out when it comes to coffee makers is Nespresso. Nespresso’s single-serve espresso machines and coffee makers brew high quality coffee and espresso easily, conveniently, and with little mess. But they also offer some decent savings, and if you’re on the lookout for the best Nespresso deals going on right now, we’ve organized them all below for your shopping convenience. They compare really well to the best espresso machine deals going on right now and any one of them will pair well with one of the best smart mugs. But if you aren’t finding what you’re looking for you should also check out the best Keurig deals and best coffee maker deals, and if you’d like to add some other appliances to your kitchen don’t miss out on everything that’s going on among the best air fryer deals, best Instant Pot deals, and best Ninja Foodi deals.
Nespresso Vertuo Next Coffee and Espresso Machine — $129, was $179

Available with an aerator (sold separately) this model is the machine only, and it's ready to prepare single-serve espressos or coffees. It has a fast heat-up time, taking just 25 seconds. It's versatile too, with three brew sizes, including five and eight-ounce increments. It's an excellent way to brew gourmet-quality coffees at home, without the expensive price tags you'd pay at your average coffee shops. Give it a try if you haven't! You'll be pleasantly surprised.

Read more
Best Ninja Foodi deals: Pressure cookers, grills, and air fryers
Unloading food from the Ninja Foodi 10-in-1 Smart XL.

The Ninja Foodi lineup offers a range of small appliances that can make things easier when preparing a meal, including things like air fryers and pressure cookers. You’ll find almost everything in the Ninja Foodi lineup discounted at one point or another, which is why we’ve rounded up all of the best Ninja Foodi deals you can shop right now. Among them you’ll find some impressive air fryer deals, as well as some savings on plenty of other Ninja Foodi items. Read onward for all of the details on how to save while adding a Ninja Foodi appliance to your kitchen, and if you’re looking to add even more convenience around the kitchen you should also check out the current coffee maker deals, Keurig deals, Nespresso deals, refrigerator deals, oven deals, and appliance package deals.
Ninja Foodi PossibleCooker Pro — $130, was $150

The Ninja Foodi PossibleCooker Pro is capable of saving you a lot of counter space, as it can replace 14 different cooking tools and appliances. It can slow cook, steam, warm, sauté, steam, and roast, and it can do the work of appliances such as cast iron skillets, saucepans, stock pots, and Dutch ovens. It’s perfect for entertaining, as it has an 8.5-quart capacity that allows you to make foods like chili for up to 20 people. The Ninja Foodi PossibleCooker Pro cooks up to 30% faster than conventional ovens, and offers easy cleanup with a nonstick pot.

Read more
Best Philips Hue deals: Lightstrips and dimmable bulbs
Philips Hue and Spotify

Adding any number of smart light bulbs or smart lamps to your home can make things brighter and more efficient, as smart lighting gives you complete control of the mood in every room of the house. The Philips Hue lineup is one of the most popular among smart lighting setups, as it has a huge range of devices to brighten things up. You can find several Philips Hue products on sale right now, including things like smart bulbs and smart light hubs. Below you’ll find what we feel are the best Philips Hue deals to shop right now, so read onward for those details. If you’re in the market for further smart home savings there’s plenty more to check out, including the best router deals, best Nest Thermostat deals, best security camera deals, and best Bluetooth speaker deals.
Philips Hue Ambiance Recessed Downlight — $45, was $60

If you’re looking to install some more permanent smart light fixtures, the Philips Hue recessed downlight is a good option. You can buy as many as you need to outfit your current overhead lighting setup with smart upgrades. They offer millions of shades of warm-to-cool white and color lighting that will transform your home decor and general ambiance throughout your living spaces. They feature Bluetooth capability for instant light control and up to 1,100 lumens of brightness.

Read more