Is China spying on Americans via interactive toys?

Is China spying on Americans via interactive toys?

CHICAGO (NewsNation) — Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have raised concerns over the possibility that China could be using toys with smart device capabilities to spy on Americans.

The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday to take action on electronics made in China, warning Chinese officials may be listening in and gathering sensitive data without people’s knowledge.

While a talking doll seems like a fun toy for children, the “My Friend Cayla” device’s capabilities to connect to the internet is what is raising concerns about the potential for spying from foreign entities.

The doll has been coined as a “spy doll” by the committee, which wrote in a tweet on X:

“CCP-aligned companies Quectel and Fibocom control and could access 45% of the world’s cellular internet modules that connect dolls and other devices like cars, medical equipment and critical infrastructure to the internet.”

Lawmakers worry the doll, produced by China-based company Genesis Toys, could act as an “illegal eavesdropping device.”

Germany already banned the purchase, sale and ownership of the doll back in 2017, instructing parents who bought the doll for their children to destroy it.

The doll’s maker uses a large database to store recorded conversations, which has sparked concerns about hacking on behalf of the CCP.

Public interest research group “Don’t Sell My Data” campaign director R.J. Cross said potential spying could be facilitated through these toys without parents even knowing.

“As soon as you give any device an internet connection, the risks get a lot higher,” Cross said. “Lots of companies can gather data about us in the background, including sensitive details like our location, where we work and where we live, and how we spend our money.”

Smart toys are a booming industry with the global market expected to reach more than $24 billion by 2025. And China, which lawmakers have been keeping a close eye on for years for abusing data collection, makes 80% of the smart toys across the world.

But the Cayla doll and other toys with internet connectivity are not the only internet-enabled device raising concerns for U.S. lawmakers.

The bipartisan leaders of the committee — Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc, and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illi — sent a letter to the FCC this week to shine a light on the potential for Chinese companies to spy on Americans through “cellular connectivity modules,” like children’s toys, cars or medical devices.

“We definitely need to address this problem with legislation. We need strong legislation that’s going to rein in the kinds of data that companies come collect on us and what they can do with that data,” Cross said.

NewsNation reached out to the FCC for comment.

In a statement, a spokesperson said they have received the congressman’s letter, saying, “We take very seriously the security of U.S. networks and equipment. We have taken strong actions on a bipartisan basis to remove untrustworthy equipment and network operators from U.S. networks.”

Cross said Americans should take a second look at the smart devices they already have in their homes and research where and how their sensitive information is being collected.

“The best thing is to look very carefully at the devices that you’re bringing into your life and ask yourself, what company owns this product? What data are they collecting on me? And what do I think that data is being used for?”

Cross said the best way to find answers about smart device data collection is to do some basic research on Google to find the name of the company that makes the item and see what ties it has. She also said that reading the privacy policy — although it can be a tedious task — is the best bet to find out how sensitive data is being collected.

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