VTech Breach: Is Stealing More Than 6 Million Accounts Now Child’s Play for Malicious Actors?

December 2, 2015 @ 11:07 AM
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3 min read

Losing information in a data breach has become almost commonplace; adults are used to the specter of theft whenever they provide data to any online service. But recent attacks on Chinese toy manufacturer VTech show that children are also vulnerable.

According to SecurityWeek, a Nov. 14 attack on VTech’s Learning Lodge site and Kid Connect servers stole almost 5 million parental records and 6.3 million accounts belonging to children. These statistics include 1.2 million parental accounts on Kid Connect, a service that enables parents to connect to their child’s VTech tablet using their smartphone for the purposes of live-chatting.

Additionally, 235,000 parental accounts and 227,000 children’s accounts on Planet VTech are affected. The company’s cybersecurity has been found wanting, but there’s a larger question here: What do parents do now?

For VTech Hackers, Age Is Just a Number

What type of data is most valuable to malicious actors? Most companies point to credit card information since this kind of financial data lets criminals create their own accounts or bleed victims dry. But as the recent VTech hack makes clear, the real target is consumer information: names, addresses, birth dates and other pieces of personal data. Moreover, attackers don’t care if the records they’re stealing belong to a child or an adult; either way, they’re worth money to someone hoping to fake an identity or track down specific individuals.

VTech has been quick to reassure parents that their credit, debit and Social Security information hasn’t been compromised and seems satisfied that this is enough to stem the understandable tide of worry. But according to security researcher Troy Hunt, the company showed a “total lack of care” in securing data. He argued that VTech’s security assets were likely created some time ago and simply never updated, offering a tempting target for cybercriminals.

Now, the names, physical addresses, IP addresses, gender and dates of birth of more than 5 million parents and children are up for sale. While VTech claims they’ve implemented new security measures to prevent further attacks, it’s worrisome that passwords were not only stored in easily cracked MD5 hashes, but the company’s website also lacked support for secure SSL communication.

But there’s a broader bottom line here: Although it’s easy to point fingers at the toy company for dropping the brightly colored ball, it’s actually a critical wake-up call for parents. Kids’ data is online, and it’s vulnerable. What’s the next step?

How Parents Can Protect Sensitive Info

There are a number of protections in place to keep kids’ data safe online. For example, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents “kid-targeted websites and apps from collecting data from kids younger than 13 without parental consent,” according to Common Sense Media. While this is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t help out those compromised in the Learning Lodge hack who voluntarily signed up their kids for VTech accounts. But VTech’s focus on credit cards makes it clear: Online protection is predominantly the territory of concerned citizens and parents.

So how do parents keep their kids protected? Two steps. The first is easy: Don’t give out their information. Don’t create accounts, and if there’s no other option, don’t provide real names or dates of birth. The problem? This doesn’t address other areas where parents may not have as much control, such as social sites like Facebook or Twitter. This spurs the need for a second step: accountability.

While social media and kids’ toy websites can’t stop children or parents from giving out their own information or providing data that should really stay hidden, it is possible for these companies to implement better security design up front. This means completely encrypted communication, well-hashed passwords and active oversight of what’s really happening on company networks.

Just as parents lobby for toy recalls and call for reduced child-focused marketing, they must be willing to make security a priority. If toy websites suddenly experience a sharp drop in visitors and sales slump as consumers jump ship to more secure online competitors, better cybersecurity would surely follow. Simply put? Profit, not protection, drives the adoption of effective cybersecurity protocols; to be heard, parents must speak with their wallets.

Douglas Bonderud
Freelance Writer

A freelance writer for three years, Doug Bonderud is a Western Canadian with expertise in the fields of technology and innovation. In addition to working for...
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