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Cyber-safety and IoT: securing connected devices using data-over-sound

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/deepadesigns)

A recent Which? investigation found a number of security flaws in ‘intelligent’ toys such as the popular CloudPets and Hasbro’s Christmas favourite, Furby Connect, immediately sparking fears for the security of connected toys and wider concerns about the cyber-safety of IoT devices more generally.

Which? researchers found that one of the recent Christmas seasons’ favourite new tech toys, CloudPets (opens in new tab), were able to be hacked via their unsecured Bluetooth connections, which lead the consumer group to urge retailers to withdraw these and a number of other ‘connected’ toys from sale.

Plus, in addition to the latest concerns flagged by the British consumer rights group, the German consumer group Stiftung Warentest and a number of other security research experts have recently revealed similar findings of security flaws in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled toys.

The basic fear in such cases – and the reason why these stories get picked up by the mainstream media – is that strangers might be able to talk to children via accessing their connected toys.

And with security experts pointing the finger at security flaws in perennial Christmas favourites such as Hasbro’s Furby Connect, it raises the spectre of wider-reaching safety concerns about the internet of things (IoT) and connected devices across all industries.

After all, with the widely-cited prediction that, by 2020 there will be 20 billion IoT devices worldwide, it is far from an understatement to say that connected devices in almost every area of our domestic and working lives are rapidly on the rise.

We are increasingly living in a world where everything is connected and, in turn, depends on being connected. Our businesses, our homes, our cities and our children’s educational and play experiences will progressively become ever-more intricately linked by the Internet of Things – so this goes way beyond just smartphones, tablets and connected toys!

Chirp offers toymakers a secure data-over-sound solution

In the context of this growing dependence on IoT devices we have seen fears grow around the cyber-safety of connected devices, with these latest reports on security flaws in kids’ tech toys giving us all pause for thought.

After all, if those devices are so easily compromised by hackers, which of the millions of other connected sensors and M2M devices that we are increasingly reliant on in the home, in the office and on the factory floor could be hacked?

This latest case highlights what is in fact a common security-flaw with many Bluetooth-enabled devices. Yet the fact that it is possible to hack a connected toy with very little technical know-how shines a light on the potential scale of the problem with any other connected IoT devices. The basic problem being the fact that device that is connected to the internet is at risk of being hacked.

This is why Chirp works closely with some of the world’s leading toy brands to create connected toys that offer enhanced digital experiences that are completely protected from the wider risk that being exposed to the internet presents.

From Pokémon Go to Hatchimals and the afore-mentioned Furby Connect, children nowadays are expecting a richer and far more interactive experience as the digital and physical worlds merge. And it’s right that we must be aware of any potential security issues with these new types of ‘play experiences’.

Through clever implementation of Chirp’s innovative data-over-sound technology, toymakers can offer children a whole new way of experiencing and engaging with stories, music and videos. Put simply, what many of these new connected toys that feature a speaker and a microphone are offering is a way of expanding storytelling beyond the screen.

So, for example, a child might interact with toys in the future in very much the same way that many of us are increasingly familiar with interacting with ‘robots’ in the family, in the guise of voice-activated technologies such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home and suchlike.

Content, more generally, is evolving beyond screens, as the huge growth in the popularity of these voice-controlled technologies attests. And traditional toys are also evolving, beyond the physical into offering far more immersive connected experiences.

Children, as with the rest of the world’s population, are only going to become increasingly digitally-immersed in the future. And, of course, security is already a huge issue within the world of technology, but never more so than when it comes to kids, as the latest ‘connected toys’ scandal has clearly demonstrated.

Smart toys need smart security

The fact of the matter is this: smart, connected toys that are sync’ed to your phone or your tablet are going to be a huge growth industry over the next few years. And it will soon seem as normal to connect your children’s latest toys unwrapped on Christmas Day to an app on your smartphone as it does to put double-A batteries in.

Mattel, for example, one of the world’s biggest toymakers, recently reported (opens in new tab) that it expects to see huge growth in the $31 billion toys and games market in China by 2020 directly through the marketing of digitally connected toys, as it takes on LEGO Group and Hasbro in the fastest-growing market for connected toys in the world.

There is an immense opportunity for toymakers to create connected toys that genuinely enhance and expand a child’s imagination in educational and creative new ways. Studies already show the positive benefits that well-crafted ‘physical-meets-digital’ play experiences have in terms of improving kids’ motor skills, their understanding of cause-and-effect and various other educational advantages.

This is why the connected toy sector is booming. And why Chirp’s technology is proving to be fundamentally important in terms of securing connected toys. That’s because data-over-sound offers a secure experience for children as the toys can offer these new types of digital-meets-physical experiences without being connected to the wider internet.

In the future, kids are going to live in a world where they can have far more pleasurable and deeper educational engagements with toys that will be able to talk back and interact with them in fantastic new ways.

We envisage the best connected toys that will be topping the Christmas toy charts in 2020 and beyond are going to be those that smartly and securely help to combine children’s school curriculum goals with their play life outside of school.

And it will be these safe and secure connected toys that will help our children to learn as they play.

Adam Howard, chief solutions architect, Chirp (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/deepadesigns

Adam Howard is chief solutions architect at Chirp, the global leader in data-over-sound technology.