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What do teddy bears, My Friend Cayla and Barbie have in common? They are all toys connected to the internet that can listen, overhearing what goes on in the home. Security breaches and the privacy challenges of these devices are regularly in the news. During the holiday season of 2015 Hello Barbie faced significant pushback from privacy advocates and the companies involved, Mattel and ToyTalk, were responsive to concerns. This past holiday season a complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission over My Friend Cayla’s privacy failures and recently the doll was banned in Germany. Just this week it was revealed that the CloudPets’ teddy bears millions of recordings of parents’ and children’s conversations had been easily accessible online.

Describing them as Toys That Listen, our team at the Tech Policy Lab sought to better understand their privacy and security implications. We began with a hackathon investigating the security of toys like My Friend Cayla, Hello Barbie, Cognitoys Dino and others. We also sought to understand how parents and children viewed their privacy around these toys. We conducted interviews with parent-child pairs in which they interacted with Hello Barbie and CogniToys Dino, shedding light on children’s expectations of the toys’ “intelligence” and parents’ privacy concerns and expectations for parental controls. We found that children were often unaware that others might be able to hear what was said to the toy, and that some parents draw connections between the toys and similar tools not intended as toys (e.g., Siri, Alexa) with which their children already interact. Our findings illuminate people’s mental models and experiences with these emerging technologies and provide a foundation for recommendations to toy designers and policy makers. Read the paper (forthcoming in CHI 2017).

More information about our work is available through conferences we have participated in. In February we led a discussion on privacy and and the connected home at Start With Privacy, a conference organized by the Washington State Office of Privacy and Data Protection. We also joined a panel hosted by the Future of Privacy Forum and Family Online Safety Institute on Kids & the Connected Home and highlighted the portability of toys leading to children bringing new privacy concerns to their friend’s houses.

For questions about this project email emcr@uw.edu.