Furby or foe? How a ‘90s toy panic relates to today

Back in the ‘90s, the NSA worried a hacked Furby could pose a security risk. Today, they’re not wrong.

In 1998, Tiger Electronics released the hottest toy of the holiday shopping season: the Furby. The furry alien initially spoke its own language before gradually learning the language of the user. 

A brown furby on a black and red background.

Which made it a potential secret agent, obviously. 

How so? 

In 1999, The Washington Post reported that the NSA had issued a “Furby Alert,” banning the toy from its offices as a possible security risk. 

The concern: If AI-powered Furbies learned human languages by “hearing” them, their microphones could potentially record or repeat classified info.

It turned out Furbies had no recording capabilities; they simply repeated preprogrammed phrases as children played with them. 

But this whole debacle has resurfaced thanks to furry and “corporate shitposter” @dakotathekat, who filed a FOIA request for the full memo, which ultimately arrived — all 60+ pages of it — in a manila envelope, per 404 Media

Key findings: 

  • The person who initially raised concerns thought the toy was called Fropie.
  • Whoever leaked the info to the Post was threatened with legal action, if caught. 
  • Someone suggested they stop discussing it via official communication as it would be embarrassing if someone filed a FOIA request and it all wound up online.

But they did have a point

The media had a field day with the NSA memo when it came out. But, in our modern world, anything that can connect to the internet can be hacked, including children’s toys and (as we unfortunately learned) adult ones

  • One security researcher used an IM-ME, a discontinued Mattel communication toy, to open a garage door
  • Researchers found that anyone within 100 feet of the Bluetooth-enabled Furby Connect, released in 2016, could hijack the connection to talk to its user. 
  • In 2017, My Friend Cayla — an internet-connected doll that could answer children’s questions — flopped amid security concerns, per The New York Times. Germany went hard, banning Cayla and ordering parents to destroy it, else face fines of up to $26.5k. 

Wanna take it way back? In the 1960s-‘70s, a hacker figured out that the toy whistles included in boxes of Cap’n Crunch emitted the right frequency to take over phone lines.

Topics: Ai

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