Google's Internet-connected toys patent sparks privacy concerns, visions of IoT Chucky

Google's recently published patent for Internet-connected toys, which have microphones, cameras, speakers and motors, have sparked privacy concerns; the 'creepy' anthropomorphic devices might look like a doll or teddy bear, but some people believe it belongs 'in a horror film' and have visions of an IoT-version of Chucky.

Internet of Things toys
Credit: Mike Mozart

According to a recently published paper: “Treading Beyond the Iota of Fear: eDiscovery of the Internet of Things,” Google didn’t buy Nest “because the smartphone controlled thermostat was cool;” the company knows a great deal “about its users from scanning Gmail accounts and now it will know when individuals are statistically likely to leave their house.” And “by connecting multiple communication devices into a single automated ecosystem, one can create not only a very accurate data map about a person’s part and recent activity, but also dispense a sensory device – robotic or otherwise – to cater to the person’s anticipatory needs. But will you have control over your personal data map?”

That paper is talking about the legal eDiscovery aspects of the Internet of Things, looking forward at a time when your IoT devices and their data can be used against you in court. Google may know lots about us, but the day may come when it starts knowing a lot about much younger consumers, namely kids. A recently published Google patent shows child-friendly designs for Internet-connected toys capable of running smart appliances.

Google patent for IoT toys US Patent Office / Google

The patent abstracts states:

An anthropomorphic device, perhaps in the form factor of a doll or toy, may be configured to control one or more media devices. Upon reception or a detection of a social cue, such as movement and/or a spoken word or phrase, the anthropomorphic device may aim its gaze at the source of the social cue. In response to receiving a voice command, the anthropomorphic device may interpret the voice command and map it to a media device command. Then, the anthropomorphic device may transmit the media device command to a media device, instructing the media device to change state.

Google patent for IoT toys to control one or more media devices US Patent Office / Google

The toys, which include microphones, cameras, speakers and motors, have some people pointing at Teddy, the super-computer toy, from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film AI: Artificial Intelligence. The abstract mentions “an anthropomorphic device, perhaps in the form factor of a doll or toy;” since plenty of people consider dolls to be creepy, some believe Google’s “devil toy” patent brings Chucky to mind.

Although the patent for IoT toys was filed in February 2012, it was just published on May 21. The filing states:

To express interest, an anthropomorphic device may open its eyes, lift its head, and/or focus its gaze on the user or object of its interest. To express curiosity, an anthropomorphic device may tilt its head, furrow its brow, and/or scratch its head with an arm. To express boredom, an anthropomorphic device may defocus its gaze, direct its gaze in a downward fashion, tap its foot, and/or close its eyes. To express surprise, an anthropomorphic device may make a sudden movement, sit or stand up straight, and/or dilate its pupils.

The legal technology firm SmartUp, which first spotted Google’s new patent, called it “one of Google's creepiest patents yet.” SmartUp’s Mikhail Avady told the BBC, “it belonged in a horror film.”

Director Emma Carr of Big Brother Watch added, “The privacy concerns are clear when devices have the capacity to record conversations and log activity. When those devices are aimed specifically at children, then for many this will step over the creepy line. Children should be able to play in private and shouldn't have to fear this sort of passive invasion of their privacy. It is simply unnecessary.”

Another of Google’s patents, which was published at the end of March, proposed a robot that “may be configured to tailor a personality for interaction with the user based on the identified information.” The Register reported that “Google’s plan for World Domination” started with a different Google patent, “related to systems and methods of ‘allocating tasks to a plurality of robotic devices’.”  

Just because a company is awarded a patent doesn’t mean it will ever follow through with the ideas proposed in that patent as a Google spokeswoman reminded the BBC. “We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.”

Yet Google is definitely interested in the IoT space and is reportedly developing a new Android-based operating system dubbed “Brillo;” its Internet of Things platform is designed for “low-power devices, possibly with as few as 64 or 32 megabytes of random-access memory.” You may also recall that Google engineering director Scott Huffman proposed that our future would include microphones hanging from the ceiling and microchips implanted in brains to make search easier.

The idea of Google putting out IoT toys is not so far-fetched, considering the patent describes a "cuter" and more advanced version of Amazon’s Echo voice-activated speaker.

Amazon recently introduced a new service, Amazon’s Choice, for Echo; customers can order items by saying them aloud. But Choice also “effectively turns over a shopper’s decision-making to Amazon.” If you are out of an item, Amazon Echo searches for a previous order for that item. If you have not previously ordered the item, then Amazon Echo will recommend a similar item from Amazon’s Choice. According to Amazon’s help and customer service page, Echo will say, "I didn’t find that in your order history, but Amazon’s Choice for [item] is [product name]. The order total is $[price]. Should I order it?"

If Google were to push ahead with its IoT toy idea, then it would be interesting to see what security researcher Ken Munro could do with it. He previously made the Internet-connected My Friend Cayla doll spew curse words. He also wanted to get his hands on Hello Barbie, the Internet-connected version of Barbie. Munro is still apparently looking into security vulnerabilities and how IoT toys can be hacked.

Ken Munro hacking Internet of Things toys Ken Munro
To express your thoughts on Computerworld content, visit Computerworld's Facebook page, LinkedIn page and Twitter stream.
Windows 10 annoyances and solutions
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.