They’re growing in popularity, but smart toys aren’t just the next big thing in entertainment for children.

After the VTech toy company was hacked into recently, parents also need to be aware of the hidden dangers. 
Security experts at Dakota State University say many of these toys use wireless internet connections, but don’t have the correct data security in place to safeguard them. 

It’s an issue professors and students at Dakota State have been looking into for months.

Few toys are more enticing to a child than a seemingly magical toy that talks to them.

And the number of toys who interact with kids is growing as rapidly as the technology that makes them so inviting to kids.

In fact, the Smart toy industry is expected to reach $7.4 billion in sales in the U.S. over the next two years.

Even though he works with digital technology every day, Wade Humphreys isn’t as comfortable with the Worldwide Web when his two boys are involved.

“What kids are playing with today didn’t even exist 2 or 3 years ago. So the complexities change as does the tough decisions on what you should let your kids play with and what is safe,” Humphreys said.

He isn’t the only one wondering about his kid’s security when using smart toys. Dakota State University has been studying toys like these for months.

“When you mix children’s toys with the ability that they’re connected online and have pictures and other confidential information, to me that’s a little bit of a recipe for disaster,”  Podhradsky said.

With a child at home, Ashley Podhradsky, knows firsthand the concerns parents may have about such interactive toys.

“You start to think, okay where is that data being stored? How is it being transmitted? And can someone intercept it?” Podhradsky said.

More and more toys are using Wi-Fi, cameras and voice recognition software as a way to interact with children. According to Podhradsky, the technology doesn’t always have the right safeguards in place, making them a target for hackers.

“Worse case scenario is that they could make the toy say when your parents are asleep, come outside and we can hang out,” Podhradsky said.

Dakota State Instructor Josh Stroschein has been looking at the traffic between the toys and computer servers.

“If I’m sitting next door to someone who has a watch like this that is broadcasting over a Wi-Fi connection and they’re synching their pictures wirelessly and they’re not encrypted or protected, there could be some problems there,” Stroschein said.

Using an easy to access tool, he can look at the traffic between a smart watch for children and a server.

The Fisher-Price Smart Bear is an interactive toy that recognizes speech and has a camera in its nose.

“The communication is saved internally and is encapsulated and then it is encrypted and sent off. But when it’s stored on the device itself it’s not encrypted, so there’s the opportunity to go in and acquire that image that was recorded with this,” Podhradsky said.

Ali Ahmed, a doctorial student at DSU, says parents should also be concerned how their children perceive the toys.

“One of the biggest concerns is that with these toys with the young children, they actually don’t know they are real or virtual. So people are saying what are the ethical issues? These toys can talk back and children think they are real,” Ahmed said.

As for toys that talk to children, there are concerns a hacker could manipulate the toy to say words most parents wouldn’t want their children hearing.

Podhradsky says any message being sent to a server can be intercepted and hackers could send back anything they want the doll to say.

“We have a tendency to run to the consumerism before we think of the implications in building a correct security system around those devices,” Stroschein said.

“Certainly brings into question whether the risk is worth the reward,” Humphreys said.

Here at Dakota State University, they will continue to research to find out how easily these toys can be hacked and how dangerous it could be for your family.

Since the VTech hack in November, toys makers are taking steps to make security tighter, but the experts here say more is needed. Podhradsky says if you buy these toys, you need to monitor them, and not leave your children alone with them.

Humphreys agrees.

“For every parent it’s really concerning. Safety starts at home on all fronts and that certainly includes the Worldwide Web and all things digital,” Humphreys said.