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Playing with cyber trouble: toys and the internet of things
The concept of the ‘Internet of Things’ (‘IoT’) has become a driver of growth in technology production in recent years, as manufacturers have sought to embed internet connectivity into everyday objects and gadgets, hoping to ride the next wave of tech-industry hype. Toymakers are no exception, and as the tastes of their target demographic – kids – evolve, so too must their toys. Today children grow up taking the internet and smartphones for granted, so it makes perfect sense for manufacturers to build some 21st Century pizzazz into their toys – or face high pitched accusations of being ‘boring’. Cue the current eccentric range of ‘smart’ toys, including Lego’s programmable ‘Mindstorms EV3’ smartphone controlled robots, or Sphero’s Star Wars themed BB-8 Droid which exudes Jedi-levels of coolness.
However, in the rush to gain early market traction (or keep development costs down), it seems various toy manufacturers have failed to ensure strong cybersecurity protocols are being thoroughly baked into their products. Consequently, a troubling trend emerging recently has been the spate of cyberattacks deliberately targeting ‘smart’ toys. The most high profile victim so far appears to be VTech, a global supplier of electronic learning products, which revealed in November that various services, including their proprietary app store database, had been infiltrated by hackers.
Details of VTech hack
According to VTech, the cyberattack occurred on or around 14 November 2015, targeting the company’s ‘Learning Lodge’ app store customer database, ‘Kid Connect’ servers and ‘PlanetVTech’ website[i]. In relation to Learning Lodge, the company revealed that over 4.8 million parental user accounts had been compromised, along with over 6.3 million child accounts (of which 1.2 million had the Kid Connect service enabled).[ii] Additionally, in relation to PlanetVTech, the company admitted that around 235,000 parental accounts, and 227,000 child accounts had been compromised[iii]. Initial reports suggest the method of attack was a simple SQL injection (whereby an attacker inserts structured query language statements into a web form, attempting to modify, extract or remove information from the underlying database)[iv]. According to cybersecurity experts, this should have been picked up by any standard security testing protocols.
In terms of stolen account data, the Learning Lodge and PlanetVTech profiles included a mixture of name, email address and password details, plus IP address and download history, while child profiles contained the child’s name, gender, birthdate and avatar details. However, of extreme concern to many parents was the loss of Kid Connect data, which along with user account information, included child profile photos, chat logs (including audio recordings of conversations) and photo files sent by children and their parents. In total, over 190 GB of photos were hacked, although it should be noted that no credit or debit card details were accessed during the breach. News of the vast data breach immediately triggered alarm from parents, law enforcement and business stakeholders, amid fears the stolen data could appear on underground black markets, where there is demand from criminal organisations for this type of data.
In short, the incident has been a PR disaster for VTech, shares in which were temporarily suspended from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange following the hack becoming public. Along with the reputational damage incurred from the loss of sensitive personal information, VTech has been forced to take various services offline, as a precaution. Matters got worse on Christmas day, as many children who unwrapped new VTech devices, found they were unable to play with their new toys (due to the offline services and an inability to register the devices), much to the irritation of many parents, who took to Facebook to publicly vent their frustration at the company.
In a further, somewhat unorthodox development, VTech has recently come under heavy media scrutiny for a legal update the company issued to the Learning Lodge Terms and Conditions on 24 December 2015 (i.e. Christmas eve), which attempted to pass responsibility for hacking incidents, from VTech, to the consumer. Examples of these provisions are set out below:
- "You acknowledge and agree that you assume full responsibility for your use of the site and any software or firmware downloaded.”
- "You acknowledge and agree that any information you send or receive during your use of the site may not be secure and may be intercepted or later acquired by unauthorised parties.”
- "You acknowledge and agree that your use of the site and any software or firmware downloaded there from is at your own risk."
It remains to be seen whether these new terms are actually enforceable. In the UK, the Consumer Rights Act 2015, determines that ‘unfair’ consumer contracts are prima facie unenforceable. A ‘fairness test’ is used to determine whether a particular term is unfair – essentially, the test seeks to prevent consumers being put at a disadvantage by considering whether there is a significant imbalance to the detriment of the consumer. Additionally, VTech’s right to unilaterally vary the terms, with the effect of reducing the consumer’s rights, without a valid reason, is also potentially unfair.
Problems for other toy manufacturers
Cybersecurity incidents within the toy industry are not confined to VTech. Last year, Mattel’s internet connected doll, ‘Hello Barbie’ was also criticised by security researchers, for inadequate security protocols. The doll, which syncs with a companion smartphone app, and connects to a Wi-Fi network, contains a built-in microphone, allowing children to talk to the Barbie, in a Siri-like manner, whereby conversation is instantly processed over a server, allowing the doll to respond in real-time to the child. However, it transpired that there were various authentication vulnerabilities, both server-side and within the toy’s companion app, in addition to vulnerability to the POODLE exploit, which was first disclosed in 2014. The combined effect of these vulnerabilities (which have since been patched by the manufacturer), could have included a determined hacker being able to intercept and redirect the doll’s voice traffic, replacing responses with inappropriate content, and taking control of the microphone, potentially allowing the doll to be used to eavesdrop on the user.
Meanwhile, other toy industry titans experiencing recent cybersecurity incidents include SanrioTown.com, an online community for Hello Kitty fans, (which exposed the user account details of around 3.3 million users), along with Sony, who previously experienced a well-documented cyberattack knocking out the PlayStation Network, to the dismay millions of users – and the UK’s Information Commissioner, who fined Sony £250,000 for the incident.
Data protection compliance issues
The upward trend in IoT related cybersecurity incidents demonstrates that manufacturers of IoT connected devices and toys must ensure devices are thoroughly screened for cybersecurity vulnerabilities, before going to market. Along with bad publicity, there is a real risk of financial damage to businesses ignoring these warnings.
In the UK, although there is no specific data protection law concerning children or internet connected toys aimed at children, it is generally accepted that there is a higher standard expected of data controllers while handling children’s personal data. Indeed, in May 2015, the ICO launched a review of children’s websites and apps. Commenting on principles under the Data Protection Act 1998, Steve Eckersley, ICO Head of Enforcement, stated: “In the UK, we’re clear that apps and websites should not gather more personal data than they require, and operators should be upfront about how and why they collect information and how they use it. These principles are true whatever the audience, but they are especially true where children are concerned.” The review conducted by the ICO, in a joint collaboration with the Global Privacy Enforcement Network (GPEN), saw 29 data protection regulators from around the world examine over 1,494 websites and apps aimed at children, with a view to how personal information was collected and shared:
- Only 31% of children’s sites / apps had effective controls in place to limit the collection of personal information from children.
- 50% of children’s sites / apps shared personal information with third parties.
- 71% of children’s sites / apps did not offer an accessible means for deleting account information.
Under the Data Protection Act 1998, the maximum fine the ICO can impose for the most serious data breaches is £500,000. However, at EU level, the long awaited General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has finally been agreed and is likely to become law in 2018. Under the new regime, businesses will be required to notify the relevant data protection authority within 72 hours of becoming aware of certain data breaches, while maximum fines will be dramatically increased, as set out below:
- €10 million or, if an undertaking, 2% of total worldwide annual turnover in the preceding financial year for breaches by data processors; and
- €20 million or, if an undertaking, 4% of total worldwide annual turnover in the preceding financial year for breaches by data controllers.
To conclude, businesses should remember that just because a smart toy is aimed at a younger demographic, this is no excuse for not implementing industrial standard security protocols and a clearly defined policy in relation to collection of user data. Regulatory penalties for failure to comply are becoming more serious, while parents are likely to be very hostile towards any news of a cybersecurity incident affecting their children.