To help get you into the spirit of the season, this week we’re presenting MEL’s 2021 Holiday Toy Catalog! But instead of trying to sell you stuff like the department-store catalogs of yore, we’re offering up the little-known backstories to some of the greatest toys ever made. So take a break from your holiday shopping, grab some cocoa and be a kid again for a few minutes.
In January 1999, all was going well for the Furby. Having been released the previous October, the owl-like, hamster-y little robot that spoke its own language before it started magically spouting English became the biggest Christmas toy since Tickle Me Elmo. But not long after the holidays, headlines around the country began labeling the creature as a national security risk, allegedly because it could record everything said in its presence. Soon, the Furby was banned by the NSA, FAA and the Naval Shipyard in Norfolk, Virginia.
“Move over, Aldrich Ames,” wrote the Washington Post’s Vernon Loeb. “The National Security Agency has targeted a new national security threat capable of blabbing secrets to U.S. adversaries: the Furby.” Citing a memo to NSA employees, the article went on to explain that no recording devices were allowed at the agency, Furbies included. But, according to Furby inventor David Hampton, the Furby was not a recording device, and was thus incapable of retaining any national-security secrets. Instead, it appeared that the NSA was buying into the same misconceptions that were running rampant in the early days of the Furby.
Of the numerous Furby-centric controversies, the most widespread came from parents who feared that Furbies would learn swear words and parrot them back to their children. I especially remember this rumor because this was exactly why I wanted a Furby as a 13-year-old. I cursed at my Furby until I was blue in the face, shouting at it all the words I’d just learned from the latest episodes of South Park. Yet, try as I might, I couldn’t get him to say them back to me.
There was a good reason for that. “The Furby ‘learning’ speech was a complete illusion,” Hampton tells me. “They had 700 or 800 words already programmed into them. At first, it would start out speaking Furbish — which was an actual language that I developed — and as you interacted with it more, you would advance the ‘age’ of the program, and so more and more English words would be introduced.”
So Furbies didn’t learn — or record — anything. They simply measured how much you played with them, and the more you did, the more it unlocked new levels of speech that were already programmed in. Still, some people insisted that Furbies said “fuck me.” The reason being that one of the pre-programmed expressions in the Furby’s speech was “hug me,” which, in fairness, does sound a bit like “fuck me.”
Another myth was that the fur on Furbies was made from actual dog and cat fur. Hampton tells me that this wasn’t true either — the fur was all synthetic. On top of that, he says that the reason why the Furby was a made-up creature was because “I couldn’t make it look like a dog or cat — it wouldn’t have looked good enough. Additionally, there are already too many homeless cats and dogs, so I never wanted to replace a real animal.”
Furbies were also said to be able to disrupt other electronic equipment due to their infrared technology, which is why the FAA banned their use during takeoff and a children’s hospital in Scotland axed them as a gift for sick children. While the toy did use infrared to detect light and to communicate with other Furbies, Hampton explains that “it only worked at three or four feet away and the signal was a pulse that was so low it couldn’t disrupt anything. It was even tested by the FCC beforehand — a standard requirement in electronic toys — to be sure it couldn’t do that.”
Not to mention, Furbies were made to be cheap. Despite their clever tech, Hampton explains that the original $30 price point was paramount. “I knew this toy was going to be big, and I didn’t want to create haves and have-nots around the Furby, so I priced things out to a fraction of a cent to be sure it remained at that price point.”
Nonetheless, the Canadian Health Ministry still put the Furby to the test in 1999 to be sure it didn’t disrupt their equipment. Canadian scientist Kok-Swang Tan used a Furby around incubators, automatic external defibrillators, syringe pumps, infusion pumps, electrocardiogram monitors, ventilators, renal dialysis machines and pacemakers and found that it didn’t affect any of them. (We can probably assume this means a Furby couldn’t crash a plane either.)
As a side note, the Furby also didn’t contain technology that was capable of “launching a space shuttle,” which was another rumor about the toy. This one appears to have originated from a joke made by Tiger Electronics CEO Roger Shiffman to CBS back when the NSA first banned the Furby.
As for the NSA and the Navy, Hampton is convinced that they bought into the Furby hysteria, saying they were “sucked into the illusion that Furby could learn and repeat things, so they just banned it. But if they had just called me, they would know that the Furby was incapable of any of the things they were worried about.”
“Years later,” Hampton continues, “I was at a conference, and someone came up to me and said, ‘I’m the guy who got Furby banned from the NSA.’ I can’t recall his name, but he was really nice and he gave me an NSA hat that I still have. I even joked with him by saying, ‘Thanks for the free publicity.’ Honestly though, back when Furby was getting banned from those places, it kind of scared me because I thought that these people — who were in charge of national security — had bought into an illusion that I had created for a child.”
Robert Dietz, the general counsel of the NSA during the Furby ban, begs to differ. “All electronic devices are prohibited [at the NSA] — you can’t even bring in your own radio. If you do bring something, it’s never leaving the agency again,” he tells me, adding that, even if a standard Furby couldn’t record anything, it could have been converted to do so or used to house a recorder of some sort. “How do we know what the Furby can and can’t do?” he asks.
FWIW, Steven Aftergood, a well-known critic of the U.S. government’s penchant for secrecy, agrees that the Furby ban was perfectly appropriate. “During the years between the Cold War and 9/11, the NSA was still figuring out its function in regard to the general public, which sometimes resulted in overkill. That being said, the underlying principle of surrendering your electronics when you’re in a secure area isn’t controversial. This just took on an air of silliness because the Furby was such a childish item.”
The only thing that Aftergood says may have been a mistake was that the NSA specifically named Furby in its memo. It was a popular item — and, apparently, some NSA employees must have brought some to work — but by singling out the Furby, it pretty much guaranteed that the media would latch onto the story.
It didn’t mean, though, that the Russians couldn’t (or wouldn’t) attempt to turn the gibberish-spouting owl-hamster into a double agent.