Is Furby Spying on a US Intelligence Agency?

The toys are listening!

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A Furby

There is plenty of news about what is happening in the AI world today, from lawsuits to Taylor Swift to the spread of misinformation in active war zones. But today, we want to rewind the clock to 1998, when Furbies ran wild. 

In 1999, an NSA employee leaked information that the spy agency had banned the new children's toy, Furby. While the original article never specified what they thought the toy was doing, the fear was about learning classified information. If it wasn’t bad enough, the FAA banned the toy from takeoffs and landings around the same time. 

So, if you were a kid who never got a Furby, your parents probably worked for the NSA or were pilots. 

While this was a cute enough story from the late 90’s, the internet does what it always does - digs deeper. Thanks to @dakotathekat, we have now discovered what led to the ban from the NSA offices. They recently filed a freedom of information request, got the papers, and promptly uploaded the documents to the Internet Archive last week!

An email sent on December 9th, 1998, with the headline “Christmas Toys with AI,” started the beef between the US and the furry friend. 

This led to the release of an agency-wide memo reinforcing that any personally owned recording devices were strictly prohibited. This, unfortunately, included the beloved toy and was titled “The Furby Alert.” While some agents considered the toy a serious threat to national security, others didn’t. It can only be assumed that someone who thought the memo was a bit silly was the one who leaked it to the press. 

As a side note, the documents also show conversations between agency members about the matter. There was some back-and-forth about whether the memo was necessary and how likely it was that the toy had artificial intelligence. It reads like a Reddit post. The back-and-forth soon ended when a fellow agent reminded everyone how embarrassing it would be if these comments were made public due to a FOIA filing. If that person only knew how right they were. 

The story soon became a bit of internet trivia and a fun story about how a small toy caused such panic from the US intelligence agencies. But now we know the real fear was not that it was recording - the possible presence of AI. 

Yes, AI does pose real issues. AI also poses real opportunities. And part of what is going on is us learning the capabilities of this new technology. And while some organizations will attempt to scare mongers with how bad AI can be - just know that even the most powerful spy agency in the world has been scared of this technology.

If we can look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of this government agency and their fear of a toy - imagine how silly we might look with some of our grim predictions. 

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