Congress Wants Details Of Toymakers ‘Spy-On-Kids’ Programs

Two members of Congress who cofounded the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus are demanding information from a major electronics toy maker regarding what information is collected from, and about, children.

WND had reported about six months ago when the Electronic Privacy Information Center said it was seeking an investigation of the practice.

At that time, EPIC has asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to host a workshop regarding “always-on” consumer devices.

The devices routinely record and store private communications from inside Americans’ homes, sometimes even forwarding the data to outside agencies.

But the practices may violate wiretap restrictions, state privacy laws, the Federal Trace Commission Act and more, the privacy group said at the time.

That letter from EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg and others to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez stated the problem of “surreptitious” recording inside consumers’ homes.

Now Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, have written a letter to VTech, a major electronics manufacturer whose products include many toys intended for children’s use, asking for information.

The letter, addressed to Allan Wong Chi Yun of VTech, notes a recent security breach at the company, which has products ranging from the Kidizoom Smartwatch and related Action Cam to the Go! Go! Smart Wheels line.

“We write to convey our concerns about the recent cybersecurity attack on your company and the resulting theft of private information on millions of Americans, including children 12 years old and younger. This breach raises several questions about what information VTech collects on children, how that data is protected, and how VTech complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.”

The members of Congress cite reports that a hacker obtained “five million customer accounts and the related children’s profiles,” including “names, genders and birthdates” of children.

They note the 1998 law was intended to give parents ways to control the information websites collect about their children, and requires outsiders, including commercial companies, to “notify parents and obtain consent from them before collecting personal information from children.”

The congressional letter then asks VTech to detail for each of its products, “what data is your company collecting about children 12 years old and younger?” as well as whether the company grabs information from social media or other sources.

And the members of Congress want to know how VTech uses that data.

“If the [children’s] information is not required to make the toy or product properly function, please explain why the information is still collected,” they write.

They also have questions about the breach that occurred, what is being done to prevent future problems, and what does VTech do to help children and parents whose information was hacked.

They requested a response no later than Jan. 8.

EPIC officials explained they have provided testimony several times to Congress on the importance of protecting information about customers, especially children.

Rotenberg, while the privacy law was being developed, warned that young people “cannot assess risks as adults can, cannot exercise complicated ‘opt-out’ procedures, and should not be expected to monitor compliance.”

“It is clearly appropriate in such a situation to establish a standard in law to protect the interests of children,” he said then.

And he explained details about children are readily available.

“Government agencies, private organizations, universities, associations, businesses, and club[s] all gather information on kids of all ages. Records on our children are collected literally at the time of birth, segmented, compiled, and in some cases resold to anyone who wishes to buy them.”

EPIC also had requested action from the Federal Trade Commission, warning officials there that the “misuse of personal information” about young children should be investigated.

Over the summer, WND reported on new concerns being raised about toys, software, televisions and other devices capable of recording conversations in Americans’ homes and transmitting that information via the Web.

EPIC reported those “always-on” devices routinely record and store private communications from inside Americans’ homes, sometimes even forwarding the data to outside agencies.

EPIC asked the FTC to undertake a sector-wide investigation and urged the Department of Justice to determine “whether these devices violate federal wiretap laws that prohibit the unlawful interception of private communications.”

For example, EPIC reported, Google’s Chromium browser contains code that routinely captures private communications.

According to Rick Falkvinge, the founder of Sweden’s Pirate party, ‘Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room.’”

EPIC said Google “conceded that the browser contained this code.”

As a result, the browser “constantly ‘listens’ to the user using the computer’s built-in microphone, and when the user speaks the words ‘OK Google,’ Chromium activates a voice-to-text search function. This means that Chromium users are subject to constant voice recording in their private homes, without their permission or even their knowledge.”

Earlier, the group had cited Mattel’s “Hello Barbie,” a WiFi-connected doll with a built-in microphone.

“Hello Barbie records and transmits children’s conversations to Mattel, where they are analyzed to determine ‘all the child’s likes and dislikes.’ … Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ won’t only be talking to a doll, they’ll be talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” EPIC reported.

Samsung’s Internet-connected SmartTV also has a built-in mic that always is on and “routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes.”

“When the voice recognition feature is enabled, everything a user says in front of the Samsung SmartTV is recorded and transmitted over the Internet to a third party regardless whether it is related to the provision of the service.”

Then there’s Microsoft. Its voice and motion recorder called Kinect “is now installed in Xbox video-game consoles.”

“The Kinect sensor tracks and records users’ voice and hand gestures when users say the word ‘Xbox’ followed by various permissible command options.”

The letter explains that to accomplish this, the Xbox console “monitors conversations taking place around it, even when Xbox is turned off.”
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