Is Smart Tech a Risk to Your Children’s Safety

Baby monitor hacked | The Rise of smart devices & the risks of smart tech
Girl with Amazon Echo Alexa
Updated: 20th Dec 2019
Published: 13th Nov 2019
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By Nathaniel Nelson

Nathaniel Nelson is a tech writer and podcast producer based in New York City. He writes the interna Read More...

Would you place a device in your bedroom that listens to you, records your voice, and sends that data to remote servers?

Hundreds of millions of people have already done it. The Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod, and other smart speakers are now mainstream products, and will only rise in popularity as the years go on.

Now, a follow up question: would you place a device that listens, records, and sends data to remote servers, in your child’s bedroom?

We accept certain risks that come with living in the age of information. We understand that our social media footprints are immortal, our devices are capable of recording us, and that companies collect and traffick in our personal data. Those same risks may not be suitable for children, however. As smart technology becomes more and more integrated into the home, we must address the privacy and safety concerns that affect those too young to care for themselves.

The Rise of Smart Devices

The “internet of things” (“IoT,” for short)--our universe of connected devices, gathering data and communicating at all hours of the day--might sound big and intimidating. But the essential function of any connected device is the same: to take input data, and translate it into an output that’s helpful to you in your life. This simple formula can transform just about any household item. From thermometers to clocks to refrigerators to coffee machines, there is little about life that cannot be automated and interconnected today. Smart vacuums can clean the living room without any active participation from a human handler. Smart televisions help us stay plopped on the couch when the remote is just out of reach. If you’ve ever been toasting bread and thought “boy, this is a hassle!” our modern world has just the solution you’ve been waiting for.

Ultimately, the goal of smart home tech isn’t to stand out, but blend in--seamlessly integrating with your daily life. According to one contributor to Internet Matters--a United Kingdom-based charity supporting children’s safety online--this convenience may affect children differently than it does adults:

“Rather than something that is simply consumed on the screen it now extends to physical products and associated devices that send and receive data for fun and learning — the internet of things. This means that children don’t see a sharp device between the virtual online world and the physical world around them.”

Smart home devices can seem utterly remarkable to us. To a child who has only known life with computers that speak, lights that dim on their own, and vacuums that seem to have minds of their own, smart tech might seem as ordinary as any other furniture laying around. In fact, IoT devices can be made so innocuous as to be imperceptible to children.

In 2013, a Croatian company based in London began development on a new kind of teddy bear. Actually, more so than that, they came up with a new idea for how to monitor kids’ health.

You see, there are certain problems with monitoring the vital signs of young children. Every anxious parent knows the urge to want to be up-to-date, all the time. It’s not enough to go to the doctor’s office every so often--any little issue, imagined or real, warrants investigation. Even when you do make it to the doctor’s office, it can be an imperfect testing environment. If your child gets anxious around the doctor (and, frankly, who can blame them--it’s the place where shots happen), their test results might come up skewed.

Teddy the Guardian is a teddy bear with a biometric sensor in its right palm. An infant or young child holding onto Teddy’s paw will feed his or her vital signs directly to an ID Guardian server, which then feeds that data to a parent’s mobile device.

A 500-dollar teddy bear may not make its way into most Americans’ homes, but it’s one example of the rise in smart tech gadgets expressly designed to keep kids safe. Other examples include mobile tracking software—preventing young children from running off and getting lost—and baby monitors—keeping a watchful eye over toddlers, and alerting their parents as soon as any kind of issue is detected.

But all technologies—even the good ones—-come with downsides.

The Risks in Smart Technology

A sharp pencil is a tool for an adult, but a safety hazard for a child. That doesn’t mean pencils are inherently harmful, just that they need to be kept away from children who might otherwise mishandle them. In the same way, smart home devices are not inherently problematic. Around children, however, they can quickly become just that.

Take, for example, a standard smart speaker. A child can use a smart speaker to assist with daily routines, learn interesting facts from the internet, or listen to hit songs over a connected streaming service. Just as easily, though, a child could accidentally cause the speaker to play explicit music, or place irresponsible shopping orders online. (“Alexa, buy 100 ice creams!”)

Little things like this might not keep most parents up at night. But connected technologies can also introduce insidious safety concerns. Devices with screens, for example, can open up pathways for children to be exposed to inappropriate content online, or come into contact with dangerous individuals.

And any connected device can be hacked.

Child’s baby monitor hacked

During a winter evening late last year, a mother in Houston was woken up by the most unexpected of reasons.

“'Hey, what is this? What’s going on?'” Ellen Rigney said after she heard beeping coming from the monitor next to her bed. She assumed it was a CO2 alert.

“Then we heard sexual expletives being said in his room,” Rigney said. “Immediate reaction was that there’s somebody in here, somebody’s in my son’s room! How did they get in there?!”

When Nathan and Ellen jumped out of bed and turned on the light, a Nest camera in their room, which had been off, suddenly turned on, and a man’s voice ordered them to turn the light off.

“Then [he] said “I’m going to kidnap your baby, I’m in your baby’s room,” Ellen Rigney said.

It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying to a parent than having a stranger enter the sanctuary of their child’s room, and hearing that stranger utter the words “I’m going to kidnap your baby.” The Rigleys’ story is so strange that you’d think it’s a one-off. But their experience fits into a much larger trend. Similar occurrences have visited many families over the past half-decade.

Luckily, no recorded hack of this kind has led to any dangers past those psychological in nature. And yet, we’re left with the feeling that more could have been done. A hacker with access to a baby monitor is probably also capable of breaking into other devices connected to the same WiFi network. The potential for damage is frightening.

Home is supposed to be where we feel safe from all the troubles of the outside world. What’s the use in convenience if it comes at the cost of peace of mind?

Is There Anything We Can Do to Protect Our Children

The Rigleys addressed their cyber breach immediately, by shutting off their WiFi network, throwing their Nest camera in the trash, and filing a police report. Really, you can’t blame them for reacting strongly. However, it wasn’t necessarily the baby monitor itself which caused their problem. Perhaps Nest did build a faulty product. But only an improperly secured WiFi network, and an improperly configured device, could have so easily allowed an ordinary hacker access to the screen and microphone. Standard cybersecurity practice should, in almost all cases, prevent similar instances from occurring in the wild.

Aside from fringe cases of cyber hacks, it’s the day-to-day safety of our children which poses the more difficult, ongoing question. Smart home devices are, by nature, intrusive. They listen to you, watch you, track you while you’re sleeping, log your daily habits. We weigh the potential privacy drawbacks with the veritable convenience benefits when we purchase these machines.

Children are generally incapable of making these same kinds of decisions for themselves. Therefore, for any household with young children, parental controls must be set up right out of the box. Even the simple step of placing an IoT device out of the reach of a child can go a long way.

Not all children are equally vulnerable, though. Let’s face it: most ten year olds are better with technology than their parents are. If your child can understand the nature of the devices around them, they can operate those devices as intended, in a safe manner.

Smart home tech is on the rise for a reason. It’s exciting, and useful to our everyday lives. By taking a moment’s time to address the potential risks involved, you can feel secure in the knowledge that they’ll be a source only of utility and comfort.