How "smart devices" that listen to you could compromise your privacy

Privacy concerns smart toys

From Amazon’s Echo to Google Home, we’re seeing more and more internet-connected devices that use voice recognition technology to answer users’ questions. But before you jump onto the trend – be aware that information could be stored or shared by tech companies.

The same kind of technology can be found even in objects you may least expect – like a children’s toy.

A consumer protection group joined the fray Tuesday, asking major toy stores to “immediately discontinue sales” of an internet-connected doll called “My Friend Cayla,” which can record and respond to children’s comments and questions. The move comes just weeks after several groups filed a joint complaint with federal regulators. It alleges the doll poses “an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security” of children by subjecting them to “ongoing surveillance.”

Smart technology that'll help you keep an eye on home while away

CBS News reached out to the two companies that work together to make the doll. One of them, Nuance, said it does not share voice data with any of its other customers. But CNET senior editor Scott Stein flagged some concerns.

“They need to be able to listen and record to do what they’re doing, so there is some concern with that. Nuance says they’re not doing it, but there certainly is some element of collection,” Stein said.

“Why is voice data so valuable to these companies?” co-host Norah O’Donnell asked. 

“Well, the voice data is first of all... a part of search, so it’s an extension. The reason why search and all this information becomes important is to learn about you,” Stein explained. “But it’s also interesting because it’s a single channel… So if you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got Echo, it owns that landscape. Or Google puts the system in, it’s Google’s landscape... So I think it’s exciting for those companies for that reason because you can’t switch out of it once you’ve got it.”

Stein said privacy rules vary depending on the company – some companies choose not to collect the data. But for Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, the data is “always being collected” to improve the results of shopping and search services for users, Stein said. 

Stein also said most devices aren’t recording continuously, and won’t start recording unless activated, but added, “You know, a lot of the stuff in the future might get a little more fuzzy.”

Stein also said these “extended peripheral” devices could be vulnerable to hacking, perhaps more so than phones or computers, since privacy is “not necessarily at the forefront” – especially when selling a toy.

CBS News reached out to both Google and Amazon for comment, but did not hear back. We also reached out to retailers that were asked to remove the “My Friend Cayla” dolls from shelves. Only Toys “R” Us responded with a statement: “The below product is no long available for sale at Toys “R” Us stores or online at toysrus.com.”

“You should keep an eye on the fact this this is not going anywhere, though,” Stein warned. “Because we’re going to see more and more devices like this. So it’s more about knowing where the company is connected to, what the services are, and knowing that there is some element of security that they’re talking about.”