Remember who’s listening this Xmas

Toys and home conveniences are in the news this week. VTech, a maker of gadgets for ankle-biters, are on the rack after being soundly hacked. The outrage took a new turn today after it became clear that the compromised data included pictures and audio recordings of kids. Nothing like a potential pedo-angle to get the mainstream press interested. Other snippets in the same vein are Hello Barbie, a wi-fi connected doll (yes, really) which is vulnerable to a variety of attacks, and the Nest webcam – which appears to stay on when it’s supposed to be off. While we’re on the subject, let’s not forget the Amazon Echo – and Siri and Cortana, up to a point.

And what is that point? That there are ever more devices that listen to us – and in some cases watch us. The idea is to use voice-recognition to make it easier for us, especially smaller versions of us, to interact with the machine. The problem? You can’t fit the necessary recognition hardware and software into the toy – not physically and certainly (at the moment) not economically. So all of these devices phone home, transmit a sound file, let the cloud do the crunching and then play back the result.

Of course the vendors store the sound files – to improve their speech recognition systems, all of which will be heuristic (“learning” systems”) – but also because you have consented, in the terms and conditions you didn’t read, and therefore because they can.

And the ever-elusive point? That these devices, some of which pay only lip-service to anything resembling security, are in the background while you’re reading out your credit card number to that florist; answering your bank’s security questions or having a detailed row about family finances with your partner. They’re not supposed to be listening, but they’re both easily subverted and easily confused into inadvertent activation. There’s plenty of existing cases where laptop cameras and mikes have been used inappropriately; it’s not much of a jump to see it done to kiddie-tablets, dolls and home automation.

Do yourself a favour – buy your kids wooden blocks for Christmas.

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