Why some parents are banning “smart toys” this Christmas

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Parents are realizing that it’s not just Santa who’s keeping tabs on their kids. Many popular high-tech gadgets that may end up being given as holiday presents can actually track, monitor and record children.

Because of that, there are some gifts Felicity and Alden Eute won’t have under their Christmas tree. Their mother, Emily, has banned all tech gifts this season.

“My husband and I both agree kids don’t really need to be on technology or on social media,” Emily said. “None of these extra gadgets that just expose you to things kids shouldn’t be exposed to at their age.”

While federal law requires a parent’s permission to track and collect data on children under 13, a Federal Trade Commission complaint filed this week alleges widespread violations through apps that “send persistent identifiers to third parties without giving direct notice to parents.” 

That means things like location data, phone numbers and contact information could be exposed, according to Serge Engleman of the International Computer Science Institute. The institute’s surveillance system, under the direction of Engleman, collected evidence that is now before the Federal Trade Commission.

“We have 10 phones that are all plugged into this computer. This computer downloads new Android apps and then pushes them to the phones to simulate a user playing the games,” he said.

Engleman also posted the results on his apps census Mobi website so anyone – parents among them – can see data others have accessed through apps children can get for free. 

It’s not only apps where there are potential violations.

“Any kind of interconnected robot-type toys … interactive games that you may play online are collecting data,” said Scott Pink, a privacy and cybersecurity specialist.

According to Pink, in this holiday season, the burden is on parents to determine if a tech product is naughty or nice.

“Before you’ve used it, used your product and allowed your child to use it and have data collected about them, you should make sure there is a written policy about what data is collected and that you’ve consented,” Pink said.

So rather than roll the dice on get another tech toy this year, the Eute family will open presents that have a more traditional ring to them.

“I don’t read the fine print and I don’t think anybody does,” Eute said.

 This week, in response to criticism, Google said it will take action on any app developers that violate its policy.

Here are some resources for parents who are concerned about their child’s privacy:

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