Hello Barbie
March 19, 2015

Interactive ‘Hello Barbie’ could invade child privacy, critics say

John Hopton for redOrbit.com - @Johnfinitum

Using technology to make kids’ toys super cool - seems like a happy enough situation, no? Sadly things are not that simple for Mattel's new WiFi Barbie doll, which critics fear could be used to spy on children, invade their privacy and use them as marketing tools.

The “Hello Barbie”, due to be released later this year, will use WiFi to chat to children, play interactive games, make jokes and tell stories using a concealed microphone activated by a button on her belt. However, the technology that processes what the child says is not contained within the doll itself. Instead recordings are transmitted over the Internet to cloud servers, where Mattel’s technology partner ToyTalk processes the audio with voice-recognition software.

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While Mattel have vowed to keep the data safe, there are anxieties surrounding the inevitable vulnerability of data, plus suggestions that the company may use collated transmissions in order to monitor trends in children’s likes, dislikes and hobbies for marketing purposes.

Surveillance Barbie

Susan Linn, executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told Newsweek that:  “They should call it 'Surveillance Barbie'. Kids talking to Hello Barbie aren’t just talking to a doll, they’re talking to Mattel... a multinational corporation whose only interest in them is financial.”

The organization is so troubled by the potential problems that they are campaigning to have the toy scrapped. They quote Georgetown University Law Professor Angela Campbell, Faculty Advisor to the school's Center on Privacy and Technology, as saying:

"If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child's intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed. In Mattel's demo, Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests, and her family. This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children."

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Similarly, Linn says that: “Children say all sorts of things in their play about their lives that people don’t know. It’s really a window into their hearts and minds.”

Foe or friend?

The companies involved say that they will obtain parental permission to capture a child’s voice, but Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood says that “that won’t necessarily protect children from exploitation.” They quote ToyTalk’s privacy policy, part of which states:

“We may use, store, process and transcribe recordings in order to provide and maintain the service, to perform, test or improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, or for other research and development and data analysis purposes.”

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Of concern is the vague final sentence, which sounds quite a lot like: “and, erm… other stuff, which we’re not going to go into detail about.”

According to The Independent, ToyTalk insisted in a statement that it would “comply with legal reporting requirements that are presented to us, as do other online services." Parents can access audio files recorded on the doll online, but this in turn raises fears about hacking and spying.

Some people, on the other hand, may think all of these fears are far-fetched. Hello Barbie is supposed to record preferences in order to tailor its responses uniquely to each child, and can draw on information from the cloud in order to keep her chat fresh and relevant. Let’s hope this doesn’t mean she will prattle on endlessly about new Mattel product lines, but rather will be a cool companion to kids. Here is a video detailing the doll’s slick features:

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