A global marketplace that offers the benefits of the digital age is also a marketplace that presents challenges of culture, politics and pirates (the real digital kind).
VTech, one of the toy industry's cutting edge companies, got some publicity last week that it didn't need. A hacker managed to access VTech's digital files containing information on 6 million children who are subscribing to toys like its InnoTab tablet and Kidizoom smartwatch. Getting hacked is not a new thing, just ask Target, Sony, Home Depot and yes, the Federal Government.
The difference between VTech and these other companies is that in the case of VTech, personal information about millions of children was involved. Whether an actual threat to these children exists or not; Congress is now involved as is a large percentage of the news media. As I read about the hacking, my mind went back to Lego and Playmobil, two companies who also bumped into the reality of the 21st century.
Toys and play, once creatures of the family room are now major players in a global marketplace with more potential and danger than anything these industries imagined only 20 years ago. Lego, pushing hard into China's domestic marketplace, found itself getting criticized for refusing to donate its blocks to Ai Weiwei, a sometimes critic of that country's Communist government. Playmobil placed a Black pirate in a neck shackle, raising the ire of some who saw a racial implication in their action.
In all three cases, these companies entered into an area of controversy for which they were unprepared. The VTech situation, however, has darker implications as the company now finds itself in Congress's sights. In an NBC News article, "Lawmaker Wants Answers from Hacked Toy Company VTech," a Democratic and Republican Congressman (I guess it took a toy company to get the parties to agree on something) wrote a letter to VTech asking "…questions about what information VTech collects on children, how that data is protected, and how VTech complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act."
VTech is not sitting back, and after some initial PR miscues, has hired FireEye, an organization that assists companies that have been hacked in assessing the damage and plugging the holes. But what can we all learn from this year's missteps?
One lesson is that the business of toys and play is not just different in terms of the products we make but in the places they take us. A 21st global marketplace that offers the benefits of the digital age is also a marketplace that presents challenges of culture, politics and pirates (the real digital kind).
There is no turning back; this is the world in which we live. We all can, however, become more aware that we are practicing our trade craft in a world of unexpected challenges and that calls for a savvy world view to go along with all those cool new toys we are making.