Skip to main content

Could a hacked Barbie start a worrying trend in mass surveillance?

Just a few days ago, we heard about the potential for the web-enabled Hello Barbie to provide hackers (opens in new tab) with personal data. Numerous vulnerabilities open up the potential for data to be stolen, but this could be the start of a worrying trend. If you thought the surveillance activities of the NSA and GCHQ are disturbing, things could be about to get much worse.

There is a movement underway that sees every conceivable device being transformed into a connected device. This is more than just the Internet of Things (opens in new tab) - security experts are warning that not only could any devices connected to the internet (including web-enabled toys) could be used to spy on users, placing children at risk.

The concerns have been voiced following the recent publication of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill in the UK. Experts warn that internet firms could be forced by security and intelligence agencies to hack into devices and spy on users. One of the more troubling suggestions is that children's toys could be remotely access and used as surveillance tools.

As reported by the BBC (opens in new tab), techUK's Antony Walker says that "in theory", any device that is connected to the internet could be hacked into and used for spying. There are calls for government to set out guidelines that would restrict - or at least make clear - what sort of devices could be used for surveillance, and under what circumstances. It's a problem that Walker says will become increasingly important as more and more devices, from fridges and TVs to cars, are not only connected to the internet, but also feature cameras and microphones.

Speaking to the Commons science and technology committee, he said:

"A range of devices that have been in the news recently, in relation to a hack, are children's toys, that children can interact with. These are devices that may sit in a child's bedroom but are accessible. In theory, the manufacturer of those products could be the subject of a warrant to enable equipment interference with those devices. So the potential extent, I think, is something that needs to be carefully considered."

In some regards, Walker's concerns have something of a whiff of paranoia to them. At the same time, he raises genuine anxieties that parents will have about connected devices they give to their children. Of course, there is not just the worry that toys and devices could be remotely hacked into by government agencies, but also by criminals.

He is calling for very precise limitations to be set out for future surveillance, saying: "When we start to think, not just about the world today, but the world in five, 10 years' time as the Internet of Things becomes more real, and more pervasive.

"I think it requires careful thought in terms of where the limits should be".

Photo credit: best works (opens in new tab) / Shutterstock (opens in new tab)