The Spies in the Toy Box?


That monstrous chinchilla-esque, owl-like creature pictured above is called a Furby. It’s a toy.

The Furby was originally released in 1998 and, if you were a kid back then (or a parent, for that matter), you can attest to how wildly popular it was. Retailing for about $35 but with a secondary market price easily tripling that, the Furby was a combination of next-generation technology and nightmare-inducing fur. The technology centered on a small infrared port between the menace’s eyes — it’s that leaf-shaped spot in the image above — which allowed each individual Furby to recognize the presence of another Furby. When two or more Furbies were present, they would carry on a conversation in Furbish, a toy-specific “language” which consisted of sounds like “dee-doh” and “ay-loh-may-lah” and “ee” which were seemingly nonsensical. (Hasbro, who has since rebooted the Furby brand, now has a Furbish soundboard and dictionary available here, so maybe the sounds aren’t total nonsense.)

But that was not all Furbies could do. To many kids, that wasn’t even the coolest thing they could do. At the beginning of a Furby’s life — that is, starting with the time it came out of the box — it spoke only Furbish. But over time, the Furbies started to use English, and the amount of English they used increased and increased. Rumor had it that the Furbies were learning from their surroundings, somehow listening to the conversations and incorporating what they heard into their vocabularies. That’s fine for kids, but in some contexts that could be dangerous: some adults were in positions where they simply couldn’t have furry eavesdroppers listening in on their conversations and repeating what they heard.

The perfect example of that? The United States National Security Agency — the intelligence organization commonly referred to as the NSA. The BBC reported that the Agency had (and may still have) a policy which prevents “toys [. . .] with built-in recorders that repeat the audio” from being brought into the building, which makes sense. The policy specifically cited Furbies as an example of one such toy — being a spy agency, the NSA simply couldn’t have such an obvious security problem sitting on the desks and shelves of its operatives. So, as CBS News reported, the NSA “banned Furby – in essence, accusing the toy of being a Chinese-manufactured spy, a secret-stealing bugging device capable of eavesdropping on sensitive conversations.”

But there was a problem with the NSA’s ban. According to Tiger Electronics, the makers of the toys at the time, Furbies didn’t have recording devices at all. Rather, the manufacturer had pre-programmed some English into the toy’s memory, and as the Furby “aged,” it began to use those words more and more — but there was no way for it to add new, “heard” words to its vocabulary. A Tiger executive told the media that “the NSA did not do their homework” and exclaimed that “Furby is not a spy!”

Whether the NSA revised their policy — or whether Tiger was lying and Furbies were, actually, a front for an international spy ring — went unreported.

Bonus Fact: Furby was a featured item in the 1999 FAO Schwarz Christmas catalog. It wasn’t a regular Furby, though. The Bejeweled Furby, as it was often later called, was decked out with gemstones and, per some reports, sold for as much as $100,000. The Fayetteville Observer reported that the Furby (and there’s a picture of it at that link) was “adorned with 156 gemstones, 63 diamonds, 44 rubies, 39 sapphires, and 10 emeralds.” At least two were sold, per various reports on Furby fan sites.

From the ArchivesInvisible Polar Bears: Why Furbies would struggle to see polar bears if the two were ever in the same room for some reason.

RelatedA whole line of Furbies from the 2012 reboot of the brand.