What Santa might not tell you about connected toys

Michael Healey 21 Dec 2017

You’d better watch out! Before you fulfill your kids’ wish list this year, heed these 6 tips.

Oh, the simple days of aisle wars over Tickle Me Elmo, Cabbage Patch Kids, and Teddy Ruxpin …  In 2017, the hottest, must-have holiday toys have taken on a whole new twist. Two cases in point: LEGO BOOST Creative Toolbox - the customizable robot that lets you code its behavior via an app and complete activities; and FurReal Friends - a collection of robotic pets that attempt to emulate domestic animals, right down to their personalities.  

But as compelling - and fun - as these toys may be, here is the issue: if security isn’t taken seriously, there are associated risks with every joyful whiz and bang that comes along with each and every connected toy. They can be controlled by hackers to track, eavesdrop or even communicate with a child. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that these threats can be alleviated with some simple advice. Here are six tips to keep you a cutting-edge parent as connected toys become more commonplace.

1. Always research the toy manufacturer

Along with researching the best toys at the best prices, also look into the manufacturer. If they have questionable security practices or if issues have been raised in the past, it is better to pass on the purchase. It’s not worth the risk.

2. If you buy, enable the toy’s privacy settings

If the manufacturer passes muster in tip #1 and you decide to welcome your new connected toy into the family, immediately look into its privacy and reporting practices—exactly as you’d do with social media. Sit with your child and walk through these together; this will help them understand why such settings exist. Educating them early will make them more conscious of what they need to do in the future to protect themselves.

3. Change any default usernames and/or passwords

Some toys ship with default usernames and passwords. It’s essential that once you get them home you change these immediately. Create unique and complex passwords that include numbers, characters and symbols, even if it means that your child must ask for the password every time they use the toy—a small price to pay in exchange for safety.

4. Consider your connections, make sure they are secure

To function, some of these connected toys will require a Wi-Fi network or, in some cases, a Bluetooth connection controlled by a smartphone. It’s important that these connections are secure — especially if the toy is capable of recording location data. For Bluetooth connectivity, make sure there is a verification step when pairing the toy. And before connecting your toy to Wi-Fi, use a Wi-Fi inspector tool to assess the security levels of your connection so you can identify and resolve any discovered security issues.

5. Verify your home network security

Even when connecting a toy to your home Wi-Fi network there may still be risks. Make sure you have the latest router from your broadband provider and change any default passwords the minute you set the connected toy up. It’s also worth spending some time investigating how to secure the router.

6. Talk to your kids about online security

Children of all ages—as well as your spouse, parents, siblings, and friends—would benefit from a conversation about how to use connected toys in a way that safeguards  their privacy and security. Again, run through the security setup together with your child and highlight the distinction between what’s okay to share and what isn’t okay to share. To start with, it’s best to let them play with the toy under your supervision. Tell them they’ll be able to play with the toy by themselves once you’re convinced they’ve grasped the fundamental security and privacy concepts. This will incentivize them to adopt these good habits.

Whether you decide to let Santa descend your chimney with a connected toy or not, we’re sure all the kids in girl-and boy-land will have a jubilee either way. So Happy Christmas, Merry Hanukkah and most importantly, here’s to peace on Earth from all of us at Avast.

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