Scientists look into making IoT devices safe for children

Children love discovering new things, so no wonder they’re fascinated with the opportunities offered by the internet of things. Manufacturers have released a number of gadgets such as connected toys and wearables targeting kids to encourage independent learning and help them improve their digital skills, which will be in high demand in the future.

With approximately 50 billion connected devices expected by 2020, children are more tech-literate from a young age, so blocking their interaction with connected devices might not be the best approach. Children should be encouraged to explore technology as it will open up new career options. But parents should still be aware of the threats, risks and implications of connected devices.

Is child-proofing the internet of things really possible? A team of researchers from Lancaster University is looking into children’s online safety and privacy, as kids become increasingly ‘connected.’

In partnership with child protection experts and computer scientists, they will focus their research around educational tool Micro:Bit, originally designed to “teach children how to engage safely with IoT devices.” Micro:Bit is a device built with ethics in mind as its ‘privacy by design’ restricts certain functions, such as internet connection and radio communication, and strengthens security overall.

“Because we want future generations to be computer literate and to have a better range of core programming skills, children are encouraged to interact with programmable devices,” said Dr Bran Knowles, Lancaster University Lecturer in Data Science and principal investigator.

“Many of these devices have great functionality that requires them to be connected to the Internet. However this could potentially cause concerns around the privacy and security of the children using these devices.”

Smart devices come with multiple functions that attract children who don’t know much about permissions or are unaware of what information their devices collect and store. What’s worse is a third party is collecting the data, but what happens with it is still unclear. More problematic is that their parents don’t know, either.

Manufacturers avoid discussing data or security, probably because security is completely lacking. This past year has brought to light some serious issues with smart toys that have automatically affected consumer confidence, but have also forced governments to take action. Germany, for instance, has banned children’s smart watches, while parents have also been advised to get rid of and even destroy a talking doll named Cayla, accused of enabling hackers to listen in on conversations and even speak with children.

To ensure online safety, parents should research the manufacturer, look online for proven security flaws and always double check the type of information requested by the device. If the connected device has a software vulnerability and access to personal identifiable information, the child’s private data is instantly exposed. Are in-built cameras or microphones really necessary? If they are enabled, parents should educate children on what to share online and go through the device’s privacy settings.

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