Quebec consumer group cautions against buying smart toys this holiday season

Smart toys are interactive. They move on command, can recognize faces and perform a variety of tasks that can capture the imagination of children. But all those special special features come with a privacy risk, says Option consommateurs.

Toys collect data used for advertising and are at risk of being hacked, blogger says

Love 2 Learn Elmo is a personalized iPad app from Hasbro. Toys that interact with the internet can also collect personal data, says a Quebec consumer group. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)

Stores are filling up with holiday shoppers looking to buy gifts for the children in their life, but a Quebec consumer protection group is warning against the temptation to give kids smart toys without researching them first.

Smart toys are interactive. They move on command, can recognize faces and perform a variety of tasks that can capture the imagination of children.

But those features come with a privacy risk, says Alexandre Ploudre, a lawyer with Option consommateurs.

"These toys have different sensors which make it possible to collect all sorts of data on children." he said.

"There are cameras, microphones, optical readers and, obviously, we use mobile devices with these toys."

Devices collect data on families

Rene Ritchie agrees. He is the editor-in-chief of iMore, a tech blog focusing on Apple products.

Some products are sold cheap since companies can use the toys to harvest data from people's homes, he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak. That data, he said, is more valuable than the actual sale of the device.

There are a range of smart toys on the market, he said, such as teddy bears with embedded microphones, speakers and cameras that allow them to talk, move and respond to their owner. There are also tablets made for kids, he said.

"They have moved from crude to sophisticated really quickly," Ritchie said. But to be responsive, he added,  "they need to gather a lot of information in order to give you back information."

Listen to Rene Ritchie talk about the privacy risks of smart toys on CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Strangers can intercept data, control toys

Beyond data collection for advertising, Ritchie said there is the concern that a stranger could intercept that data, or even transmit to the device.

"The toy will suddenly be speaking in somebody's voice because they got on the Bluetooth and started broadcasting," he said.

"It could be anybody. It could be pranksters — just people walking around the neighbourhood looking for access points or it could be somebody that has bad intentions toward you or your family."

Smart toys connected to the internet can be fascinating, but they are not without risks, warns a consumer-rights group. (Stephanie Marin/Canadian Press)

Ritchie said devices are becoming increasingly protected, but there is always a way to exploit them.

If parents still want to buy a smart toy or device for their child, he said it should be kept out in the open where the child can be monitored while interacting with it, rather than in their rooms.

Or to avoid the privacy risks entirely, he suggested buying something that isn't connected to the internet.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak


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