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Don’t let a high-tech gadget be a Trojan horse

Beware the holiday gifts that can spy on you.

Sound like an overly dire warning, you say? Well, in this ever-more-internet-connected world it might surprise you how many of those wish list gifts come with a tantalizing lure for criminals.

“If you can connect it to your home Wi-Fi there is always the potential that someone can get in and hack it,” tech expert Andrea Smith told me the other day. She should know. As co-host of the popular Parenting Bytes podcast Smith has been advising consumers for years about the latest in consumer electronics – both the good and the bad.

“If there is a camera (on a toy) they can spy on your kid,” Smith said. “If there’s a GPS locator built in they can see where you live. If there’s a microphone a criminal can hear your conversations.”

This holiday season there are countless sophisticated toys, gizmos and smart home accessories that have all those things. And chances are someone you know is drooling over the thought of getting one this year. Maybe you are.

If you get one of those devices that you speak into and it automatically activates your thermostat or lights, or plays your favorite music, just understand that open channel of communication can be tapped into by others. And if a criminal hacker eavesdrops while you’re talking about, say, your bank balance or upcoming vacation, they can use that information to steal from you. The global positioning feature can tell them exactly where you live.

Among the other internet-connected products offered this year are various types of gaming consoles, exercise gadgets, interactive dolls, different types of robots – some can go spy on your brother or fetch Dad a beer – and there’s even a Wi-Fi-connected salt shaker that provides mood lighting and plays music at the dinner table.

For someone with a criminal mind and the ability to manipulate the internet, these Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled devices are a potential gold mine.

If an internet intruder has more than stealing on his or her mind, they can activate your teenage daughter’s laptop camera in her bedroom or transmit messages to children through their toys’ speakers.

A Bluetooth-powered doll named Cayla is marketed as a “friend you can talk with” via its embedded microphone but, again, it’s a two-way street. Dodgy characters could hack in for surveillance of the child and to clandestinely speak to them. The Cayla doll has been banned in Germany, declared to be a “forbidden toy,”and parents have been ordered to destroy all of them or face hefty fines and jail terms. The Consumer Council in Norway has designated Cayla as a “failed” toy that violates European consumer privacy laws. The company denies the toy is unsafe, and the Cayla doll is still available in the U.S.

If you’re one of those who isn’t sure about the difference between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, artificial intelligence, and smart home technology, you might want to hit – what else? – the internet and check out’s holiday shopping guide. This tech organization believes the internet should be used to enrich lives, but not at the expense of consumers’ security and privacy.

And check out Andrea Smith’s Parenting Bytes’ webpage for thoughtful analysis of products their experts believe are consumer-friendly, especially for children.

All the warnings aside, Smith admits she can’t do without her Alexa Echo voice-activated device. “Among its skills,” she said, “I wake up in the morning, and ask about the weather or my commute time. When I cook I can ask it to set one timer for my rice and one for my broccoli,” and Smith says if her mother were still alive she’d buy her one because it can be programmed to simultaneously call, text and e-mail all emergency contacts an elderly person might have.

It really is remarkable what technology offers us these days. Companies that design these products certainly do so with customer safety and privacy in mind, but add in a crafty criminal mind and who knows what might happen. As Mozilla vice president Ashley Boyd recently wrote, “Complicating all of this is the lackluster state of online privacy and security protections. In the United States … we don’t have very many rules or regulations defending consumers’ online privacy.”

As with everything we buy, ownership comes with responsibility. Since Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the driving force behind these items, for goodness sakes, make sure you have a strong password. Not your birthdate or phone number but something unique and hard to crack. And change it often.

In the meantime, Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas! May your season be filled with peace, joy and security.