The time when kids would be happy with a colouring book for Christmas has long since passed, and this year 'Wi-Fi' and 'interactive' seem to be the buzzwords. But should we be worried about these products, and how well protected are they? Here are a few things to think about when you're looking to purchase a Wi-Fi or internet connected toy.
What security precautions are in place?
The truth is that Smart Toys are often worryingly insecure, because those making these products are toy manufacturers, not security experts. Unfortunately, this makes them easy targets for hackers.
A casual hacker will be interested in the challenge and the amusement of accessing these products - not profit or data. But their findings can then be shared online with countless others, who could then connect to the toy remotely.
Run the product through a search engine before you buy. Add the word, 'hack' or, 'security' to the end of the toy's name, and see what the results are. If the product has been out for a while and nothing worrying comes back, that's a good sign - although its not a definite guarantee of its safety. If results come back like the ones for Hello Barbie and My Friend Cayla , maybe give it a miss.
What about privacy?
With dolls and toys you can talk to or interact with in any way, that information is being transmitted back to the manufacturers. How do they handle the data, and what do they do with it? Does it remain completely private? And if audio recordings or data are retained by these companies, what are they used for?
What are the 'talking' toys saying?
With Wi-Fi connected toys, or even talking toys in general, they usually boast hundreds, thousands, or even millions of registered responses to your child's questions. It's worth thinking about whether your child is going to accept everything the toy says as gospel, and the kinds of things the manufacturers might want them to talk about.
For example, My Friend Cayla has an eerily positive response to being asked about Toys R Us, 'I've been to Toys R Us. Hasn't everyone? (giggle) I love it there because I get to look at all the new toys. I wish I could work there some day and play with all the cool toys all day long. That sounds like a fun job.'
Unfortunately, there's no real way around this problem - unless you hang out with the toy for a week or so and trial different questions. Again, another google search for the product name followed by 'responses' could help.
So what's the verdict?
Anything which sends data over the internet is open to all sorts of vulnerabilities, and there's no real way to know if something is 'hack-able' until it appears in the news. Usually the companies that make these toys are quick to act after a security flaw is found, but by then the damage could have already been done.
If it's a tablet or a mobile that's on the wishlist, opt for an up to date model from a brand which you're familiar with - then just set up parental control features yourself. This is likely to be a better investment, and certainly a safer one than leaving the responsibility with the manufacturer.
If it's a talking doll or teddy that your little one is desperate for, make sure you do your research and decide for yourself. But the silent ones are guaranteed to be safer and often much more cuddly.