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Kids toys for a dangerous world

Illustration by Bob AulIt's probably nothing, but spy toys are one of the hottest toy genres this holiday season. They allow kids to pretend they're the kids from Spy Kids or James Bond or, for those in need of attention, Robert Hansen as they use their toy spy cameras attached to sunglasses or their toy spy listening devices or their toy metal detectors.

It's probably nothing to be concerned about. I mean, as a kid, I pined for and received a 007 combination knife/gun thingy, and I haven't turned over any national secrets that I know of. There is one difference, though: my knife was plastic, and the gun didn't really shoot bullets. The aforementioned spy camera really does take pictures, and the listening device really does pick up conversations taking place up to 30 feet away. They work, in other words, as does the metal detector and the supersonic ear and the night-vision goggles and so many other surveillance/intelligence toys now taking up larger amounts of store shelf space.

Still, it's probably nothing. After all, reams of newspaper stories have been written about how kids like the spy toys because they're fun and they allow them to imitate the Spy Kids and to feel in charge of their world and, in the case of seven-year-old Calvin Valmassei, profiled in the Indianapolis Star, "He likes to try and hear conversations going on inside some of the new homes being built in the neighborhood."

See, it's that last thing—the one about listening in on other people's stuff—that's the disconcerting Big Brother/Salem witch trials kinda thing. I mean, it's one thing for kids to use spy toys with other kids who are playing with spy toys, and everyone knows they're being listened to and/or watched; it's another when it's people inside a house talking about the funny rash that now requires daily ointmenting.

And these toys are not only designed for that purpose, but they're also marketed that way. Wild Planet, the San Francisco toy company that pioneered this line in 1998, is the market leader of the form, and it entices kids on its website to eavesdrop on others. On the link for Undercover Girl, the company's line of girl spy toys (there's a separate line for boys), comic strips show the devices in action. In one strip, called "School Play Pranksters," two girls direct their Wild Planet Secret Listener disguised as a portable CD player toward two male classmates on a school bus. They find out that the two are planning a prank—a kind of lunch-box Sept. 11—for that day's school assembly. Because of their fast work, disaster is not only averted but also the assembly is a huge success, punctuated by the boys' summary execution.

I made up that last bit, but tell me if the stuff preceding it didn't sound like one of those stories designed to encourage children to turn in their teachers, friends and family members used by the old Soviet Union or the DARE program.

Now, does this mean kids who play with spy toys are going to grow up to be snitches? Does it mean they'll be much more comfortable with eavesdropping or having others delve into their own private matters? Does it mean they'll be much more open to others—say, the government—invading the privacy of anyone who doesn't look right, act right or talks suspiciously on a school bus or in a Florida restaurant?

It's probably just me. I mean, just because a kid plays with a pair of spy-camera sunglasses doesn't mean he'll be using them as an adult. No, by then, he'll want the pair that comes with a hidden color video camera, you know, the kind you can get at Or-Com.Com for $699.99, the same place you can buy spy cameras hidden in cell phones and clock radios, smoke detectors and teddy bears.

And when you come right down to it, most kids whose parents can afford to buy them spy toys already have access to a home computer—the most powerful surveillance tool there is, especially if you buy the myriad programs designed to check up on your cheating spouse or slothful nanny or rotten kids or crooked employees.

In fact, maybe it will have the opposite effect, since just as hot as the spy toys are the counterintelligence playthings—such as diaries that can be opened only after the activation of a security system relying on voice recognition. And there are motion sensors kids can put on their doors or toys because you never know who's listening and who's lurking. And isn't that what this holiday season is all about: some self-righteous fat guy stealthily watching your every action, judging it as good or bad—no appeal—just like John Ashcroft.

So, maybe it's just me. Maybe we're not training the next generation of spies, turncoats, nosey Nellies and Alice Kravtizes. Maybe we're just giving them the tools they'll need to compete in life, maybe even get a job in the Pentagon's new Office of Information Awareness that is building a system called "Total Information Awareness," whereby government operatives will be able to monitor anyone's computer and phone activities, medical and financial dealings, oh, just about everything about them—right down to that funny rash and those peculiar ideas—and then they'll decide who's been naughty and who's been nice.

That sounds like fun!

 
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