Christmas is coming – but turn off the Wi-Fi

Every year, as Christmas draws nearer, many can be heard questioning the sanity of annual gifting madness. In the past, everything was better when the parents themselves were children and most were happy with a wooden car. Today's children are far too spoiled anyway. But if you think the favorite toys of yesteryear (Magic Cube, He-Man, Furby, Tamagotchi) are the spawn of the devil, you'll be amazed by the current toy trends. A survey of parents by the security software manufacturer McAfee found that 90 percent of children want networked toys. Hardly any parent, however, has IT security in mind, which is quite important with such digital technology finding a place in our children’s bedrooms.

The study not only reported on the toy trends of the year, but also highlights which popular technology gifts are the easiest to hack. Although the most at risk are still laptop and mobile devices, drones and generally children's toys with network connections have made it on the list. Trends can’t be stopped just by pointing the finger. The fact that just about any device with a processor can be connected to the Internet by now is a side effect of cheaper technology and the desire to bind customers as closely as possible to the manufacturer. Thanks to unlimited computing power in the cloud, these products are becoming more sophisticated. Speech recognition, interaction, image processing and many other computing intensive applications can be realized without great effort. Many networked toys are simply not usable without Wi-Fi access.

Most children get their first digitally networked technology device aged between seven and nine. McAfee reports that children of this age are not aware of how to deal with their own data responsibly. Anyone looking at the security incidents of recent weeks, months and years will come to the conclusion that apparently significantly older people also lack awareness. A first step would be reading terms and conditions before blindly accepting them. Nevertheless, the potential risk of networked toys exploiting children is in a league of its own. Often cameras are installed in toys which could spy into the privacy of children’s bedrooms. Security software almost never exists for these toys, because the toy does not have an operating system or even an interface for it. As the vast majority of parents already fail to secure PCs and wireless routers due to lack of knowledge, it does not look good for the new digital playroom. McAfee reports that 89 percent of all parents surveyed in Germany stated that their child had asked for a “connected device” as a toy. About 35 percent of the parents interviewed did not know what a connected device is.

As usual, the study also showed a difference between intentions and actions. Even though 72 percent of German respondents believe that smartphones, tablets and laptops can only be used safely after the required security measures have been taken, only 51 percent actually implement the necessary security measures. Incidentally, older people, the 51-55 year-olds, are much more likely to carry out the security measures than the 21-30 age group. The older generation that has not grown up with the internet is so much more cautious than those who barely know a life without the internet.

In the end, it comes down to trusting the manufacturer to get it right in terms of safety, either because they lack the knowledge or the technical resources to take care of it themselves. Of course, it would make more sense to completely dispense with the networking of toys, whether for adults or children. But those in the manufacturers' marketing departments are unlikely to even consider such an option. And kids are hard to persuade, such arguments didn’t help with Furby either. But there you could at least take out the battery.

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