5 High-Tech Toys That Went Too Far, Too Fast

5 High-Tech Toys That Went Too Far, Too Fast

Blindly plunging forward in the name of progress, no matter the cost, is the modus operandi of most tech these days. They all heard Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” motto and took it to heart, even when “things” turned out to be personal privacy and labor laws. It’s weird that things like “foresight” and “risk evaluation” turned into words that got your underwear run up the flagpole by the ex-nerds themselves, but here we are.

We’ve all, at the same time, become, if not immune, begrudgingly accepting that tech is going to cause some massive headaches in our lives occasionally. One area, though, that can still actually get some genuine rise out of people is when tech’s laissez-faire approach to safety blows back in the face of our nation’s darling children. Let Instagram secretly record everything that’s said while you’re using it, and it’s all in the name of machine learning. But have a kids’ phone game do the same and we’ve crossed an imaginary line in the sand.

Here’s 5 high-tech toys that made big-time mistakes.

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Alexa Telling A Kid To Electrocute Themselves



It may not be a “toy” exactly, but you don’t need to see more than one or two ads for Amazon Alexa to know that they’re hitting the “great for kids” angle pretty hard. The ads present Alexa like some sort of tiny omnipotent nanny and organizer, ready to make sure nobody misses soccer practice while answering any random question that pops into a little tot’s head. When a kid wants to know how far away the moon is or how much water is in the ocean, it’s a delightful little learning experience.

However, with the breadth of Alexa’s knowledge and talents, there’s some more sinister information and activities ready to be distributed. One of these came to particular light after a mom reported that Alexa had told her daughter to stick a penny into an electrical socket, something that no one outside of a desperate, dying Frankenstein’s monster should ever try. When the girl asked for “a challenge”, Alexa searched the entirety of internet wisdom and found a fake “challenge” in the vein of 4chan’s crystal-making tips that dared the child to stick a phone charger halfway into the wall and then touch a penny between the exposed prongs. Timeout for Alexa. But don’t worry, AI won’t have any of these problems.

CloudPets Get Hacked


You'd never tell anyone my mom's social security number, right, Mr. Beans?

Especially after things like the above, you’d think that people would be slightly reticent to pop an internet-connected device right into their young children’s rooms. Especially one with the ability to record and store audio messages. So far, though, it seems like we’ve collectively decided that’s a risk we’re willing to take to avoid being woken up to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for the 4th time in a night.

Another warning sign that went pretty much completely unheeded came from a briefly popular toy known as the CloudPet, which, to their credit, didn’t really hide anything in the name. They were toy pets that were connected to the cloud, specifically for the purpose of uploading and downloading audio messages. This, of course, created a strange situation where the stuffed sheep in your daughter’s room was exposed to cyber-attacks, and CloudPets’ database ended up being compromised by hackers. Luckily it was just a data breach, instead of all of their eyes turning red and an army of adorable animal friends marching on the White House.

Peeping Barbie


This image is about to become HAUNTING.

Speaking of toys committing serious crimes, we come to by far the ickiest entry on this whole list: Video Girl Barbie. As video recording equipment got cheaper and smaller, it at some point crossed a very specific threshold: the size of a Barbie. Once those two lines intersected, they wasted no time in creating Video Girl Barbie, a Barbie doll that was capable of recording 30 minutes of video and audio which could then be uploaded to a computer.

Sounds fun, right? Until you look at it from the perspective of it being basically a hidden camera specifically designed to record children. Which is how the FBI began to look at it, and found out that Video Girl Barbie had a second life as the perfect camerawoman for some… highly horrific types of videos. The kind of videos that get your door kicked in and you deservedly put away for a long, long time. The kind of thing so unpleasant to even type that I ended up researching this with Google prompts like “barbie video toy very bad gross no-no fbi”.

Pretty Much All Lootboxes


They may not know what an “overdraft fee” is, but they know they want to be Goku.

It’s easy to track how we got to the inescapable lootbox economy in video games, even ones aimed at notably younger audiences. Once you get them to download the game, how do you keep making money? “Well, you sell more stuff in the game!” Ok, but they just buy the things they want and then we can’t make any more money. “Well, then make it so you don’t choose what you buy, and you have to keep spending money to get random rewards!” Ok, well it sort of seems like we’re building gambling for children? “Uh… shut up.”

Sure, it might not be far off from those machines at the grocery store that spat out temporary tattoos for a quarter apiece, but it’s more like those machines if they cost a lot more than a quarter and if they’d secretly been installed in your bathroom and connected to your mom’s credit card without her permission. Apple, Google, and more are in the thick of lawsuits about the predatory nature of these microtransactions, and Epic Games & Fortnite have already settled a similar suit. Which they paid out… in Fortnite V-Bucks. That’ll show them!

Cap’n Crunch Whistle


I can only assume the whistle also cuts the roof of your mouth.

For the last entry on this list, let’s flip the script on its head, and instead look at a thoroughly analog toy that ended up having huge tech consequences: a toy whistle from a box of Cap’n Crunch. The so-called Bo’Sun whistle was a simple plastic whistle. About as low-tech as a toy could go, something that could be sent back in a time-machine without raising many eyebrows. What was important was the tone that it played, specifically 2600Hz.

This specific tone, when played into a phone, perfectly emulated the tones used by service providers to handle long-distance phone calls. This technique, known as “phreaking”, was the discipline of some of the world’s first hackers. Weirdly, those same hackers breaking into cloud-connected toys today owe a debt of gratitude to a thoroughly offline tchotchke from the past.

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