Don’t Be Dumb About Smart Toys and Home Devices by Google and Amazon

Grumpy Bulldog used with permission

We’re getting into a whole new relationship with technology. Tech makers want us to embrace the “Internet of Things,” especially those that can be used in the household.

Like our smartphones do, smart home devices have prodigious capabilities. Amazon Echo becomes a DJ, spinning up impromptu family dance parties. You can summon the weather report even when you’re elbows deep in soap suds. Internet-connected gadgets become more indispensable when they team up, like when Alexa cues your robot vacuum.

But if you opt to bring these powerful objects into your home, you need to be smart, too. For one thing, you can’t expect 100% privacy. Smart speakers like Google Home not only listen and assist when prompted by their wake word, they also record what they hear.

So, just as we humans need to use our Spidey Sense to sniff out fishy stuff we read online, we also need to be pro-active with devices that have no keyboards or screens.

What to know if you might buy or have already purchased:

ALWAYS-READY SMART SPEAKERS such as Google Home and Amazon Echo

Take charge of their operation

Review the product’s Frequently Asked Questions page, such as the Amazon Echo FAQ. If you use the device, practice good digital hygiene. Regularly review and delete recordings and clear your search history.

Mute when you want to

When the blue light circles atop Echo, it is storing what you say on Amazon’s servers. Your audio is streamed “a fraction of a second” before you say “Alexa” and continues being recorded until your request is processed. So sometimes, The Guardian reports, “fragments of intimate conversations may be captured.” (That’s why police are requesting data that may have been collected by smart speakers and TVs to help solve crimes.)

You can easily stop Echo and Echo Dot from recording by pressing the microphone button on top. The blue ring turns red when it’s no longer listening.

Mute Google Home with the microphone button on the side or tap the indicator lights on top.

Be careful about location

Keep in mind that voice purchasing is enabled by default on Alexa devices. If you don’t want people accidentally or intentionally ordering up, set a pin that must be used to buy things or turn off voice purchasing altogether.

If kids are around, you may want to place the smart speaker in an out-of-the-way place so you can better manage how and when they use it. Then again, that might be better done right in the thick of things.

ALWAYS-ON HOME CONTROL DEVICES such as Nest thermostat

Since these products are always on the Internet, they are vulnerable to hacking. To prevent that:

  • During setup, if you encounter a default password, ALWAYS CHANGE IT.
  • Do not reset with passwords like “abc123” or “password.” Take that extra moment and set a strong password.

Always remember: hackers constantly troll the Internet for weak and factory-set passwords, which are basically digital unlocked doors.

INTERNET-CONNECTED TOYS such as Cognitoys Dino, Hello Barbie and Jibo

Internet-connected toys are certainly fun and cute, but they also record conversations and it’s not usually clear what happens to the data. As with Internet-connected baby monitors, Internet-connected toys are also vulnerable to hacking by bad actors who might want to listen to, watch, or interact with a child. The toys can also be given to kids for nefarious purposes, such spying on them and their households.

Even for kids who already have these toys, their parents often “don’t know if and when a toy is actually collecting information and whether it’s turned on or not,” according to Jay Campbell, who does research for the Family Online Safety Institute.

In mid-2017, the Federal Trade Commission issued revised industry guidelines on connected toys and some toy makers are responding. Still, Campbell says, connected toys should but typically don’t do this yet:

  • Provide clear privacy notices on packaging and when setting up toys.
  • Make it easy to know when the toy is operating and when data is being collected and transmitted.
  • Obtain Parents’ consent before information is collected.
  • Protect against hackers that would access video or audio of children or use the toy to communicate with children.

When you’re shopping in a store for a toy, there is little to no information about this on the box. However, some products by Hasbro and Mattel do display the Entertainment Software Rating Boards privacy certification.ESRB Connected Toy Privacy CertificationBut, until manufacturers prove they’ve taken all the steps needed, it may be wiser—and less risky—to bypass Internet-connected toys for now.

On a brighter note, it’s exciting to see how Amazon has improved it’s FreeTime experience for kids —and their parents.Amazon FreeTimeI feature FreeTime as a “durable human design” in my book because it actually helps parents help their kids use technology wisely. FreeTime is a subscription available for the Kindle Fire Kids Edition which has pre-viewed and vetted entertainment and a super easy to use parental control dashboard.

For the thousands of books, videos, apps, and websites Amazon pre-approved for kids by age group, the company now offers Discussion Cards to provide parents with short summaries, sample questions, and ideas for family activities. I demo the FreeTime parent dashboard in this 3-minute video.

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DurableHuman.com founder Jenifer Joy Madden is a health journalist, digital media adjunct professor, and author of How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design. Her work has informed millions on news outlets including ABC News, The Washington Post, Readers Digest, Tech Republic, Thrive Global, and many others.

Download a free PDF copy of Madden’s inspirational, quick-read The Durable Human Manifesto: Practical Wisdom for Living and Parenting in the Digital World here.

Also, get this free checklist for how to plan your family’s time wisely around technology and everything else.
Learn more about this author on Google+.

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