This Christmas season brings not only the usual joy and cheer, but also new challenges and privacy threats, which seem to be the nature of technology these days. It seems even Santa isn’t immune to gifting technology which invades our homes with toys that gather secret information about us.
It turns out that the My Friend Cayla doll and the i-Que Intelligent Robot have the ability to spy on everything that kids (or anybody else) says within listening range of the toy. There have been a few other toys in the past that were capable of conversing with kids. Last year’s Hello Barbie chatbox also had this capability. But the big difference is that the Hello Barbie only recorded speech when a button was pressed while these new toys are always listening.
This phenomenon is not limited to toys and there are other devices today that listen to us all of the time such as Siri-enabled iOS devices, OK Google-enabled phones or the Amazon Echo with Alexa. It seems like 2016 was the year when technology began to actively listen to us, even though the concept has been around a bit longer. In 2015 there was a furor when it was revealed that Samsung TVs could both watch and listen to whatever was happening in the room with them. But now the market is seeing a lot of devices with this capability and one can imagine this is going to soon be included in a lot of new devices.
There have always been concerns that future IoT devices would enable tech companies to spy on us. The example given in the past was that motion detectors and cameras that are part of a security system could log all movements inside a home and provide a lot of detail about how various family members move during the day.
But this new technology leaps beyond that scenario to devices that actively listen and record everything we say. One would have to think this new technology is going to be built into most future smart devices as we quickly move towards a world where we talk to our house and the devices in it. All of these technologies work today by using voice recognition software in the cloud that convert everything it hears into text. From there the software in the cloud reads the text to determine if anything said warrants a response.
I’m sure that the average person hasn’t considered what this new technology means, and perhaps having this technology show up in toys will begin the conversation. The potential for abuse from this technology is almost unimaginable. One can envision family members spying upon each other. It’s not a hard stretch to foresee a repressive government listening to everything we say looking for ‘bad’ thoughts like was predicted in Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. It’s also not a hard stretch to see transcripts of what is said in a home end up on the dark web for sale so that anybody can buy our private conversations for a price. And in the business world it’s not hard to envision hacking into office devices as the ultimate form of corporate espionage – to catch those things that are said but are not put into writing.
Probably the worst thing about this technology appearing in toys is that it was put in half-baked with no real thought about security. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has brought a complaint about these toys to the Federal Trade Commission and asked that they be recalled, and that no future toys be allowed with the technology until there are some basic safety requirements defined for the industry. For example, EPIC showed that these toys can be easily hacked and that hackers are able to both listen to everything said within 50 feet of one of the toys, but worse, they are able to hold a conversation with kids through the toy. This opens up the scary scenario of child molesters talking directly to kids through the guise of a supposedly “safe” toy.
The company behind the technology in the toys is Nuance. Their response to the issue is not assuring. They said that they do not sell the recorded voice data to anybody. But there is no law to stop the company from changing this policy at any time. And in today’s world there can be no guarantee that the company won’t be hacked and piles of our conversations stolen by nefarious people.
This is a new technology and now is the time to craft some laws about its use. Today there are only a handful of companies deploying the technology. But now that Amazon and Google are making their AI functions available to others as a cloud-service, this technology will soon be built into huge range of devices. I know it sounds cool to change the settings on your washing machine by telling it how to wash the next load, but is it worth it if your washing machine also sends a recording of everything it hears everything to the cloud?
So we enter this Christmas season with another new technological worry. For the first time it might really be true that Santa is actually listening and he really will know if you’ve beene naughty or nice.