Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about toys and whether they are true or false.
TOY URBAN LEGEND: The National Security Agency banned furbies from their offices for fear of the toys recording confidential information.
Back in 2015, Samsung’s Smart TV caused a bit of a stir when it was revealed that the voice activation feature, which allowed users to control the television through their voice (you know, like, “raise the volume,” “put on AMC,” etc.). The issue was that the company itself gave users the following warning:
“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.”
It really wasn’t much of a big deal, as it wasn’t like the television was just listening in. It was more a case of Samsung just being overly cautious with their warnings.
However, this reminds me of a hilarious piece of information from the late 1990s, when the National Security Agency (NSA) banned Furbies from their offices for similar fears of being secretly recorded!
Read on to see whether furbies were really spies…
Furby was the name of an robotic furry toy by Tiger Electronics that was released in 1998 and soon became a hit toy craze, with the Christmas season of 1998 being particularly crazy (with the after-market going nuts, as people would sell furbies for two and three times their original purchase price).
The sophisticated electronics and sensors in the product caused it so that it appeared as though the toys were learning to speak English. You see, the dolls initially spoke just “Furbish,” a nonsense language. Over time, they slowly added more English words until they spoke English. This, though, was just as a result of a program that made it so that over time, the dolls would automatically speak more and more English. And now here’s the tricky part, sensors would go off if you pet the doll while it was saying certain words. It would then make the furby speak those words more often. So it seemed like you were teaching the doll to speak.
That was the problem, then, of the NSA, as they thought that the doll was ACTUALLY learning English through recording people’s voices. So they assumed that there was a recording device in the dolls, and thus some nefarious agency could then use the dolls to record confidential information. So in 1999, they banned the dolls from their Fort Meade, MD headquarters, in a memo, noting:
Personally owned photographic, video and audio recording equipment are prohibited items. This includes toys, such as “Furbys,” with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original.
That, of course, was not the case.
A Tiger spokesperson released a statement on the issue:
Although Furby is a clever toy, it does not record or mimic voices. The NSA did not do their homework. Furby is not a spy!”
I, of course, couldn’t help but make a reference to my first book, Was Superman a Spy?: And Other Comic Book Legends Revealed
The legend is…
STATUS: True for the NSA thinking they could record things, but False to the general “Was Furby a Spy?” question.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.