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These talking dolls may be spying on your kids

Meredith Bland is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Time.com, Brain, Mother, The Rumpus, Scary Mommy and Narratively, among others.

If you value your and your children's privacy, you'll want to avoid these two dolls

Back when some of us were kids, a hi-tech doll was one that peed when you squeezed it or talked when you pulled a string. These days, like everything else, some talking dolls have gone to another level and are now able to communicate with your child. Creepy? A bit. Privacy violation? Maybe. Do they also send your child's information to defense contractors? "Of course not," you say. "What a ridiculous idea." Except you're wrong because they totally do.

A coalition of consumer rights groups filed a complaint with the FTC against the makers of My Friend Cayla and the I-que Intelligent Robot, alleging that they're collecting voice data from children and sending it to third parties without parental consent.

More: Protecting your child's online identity

This is how the dolls work: When your child talks to the doll/robot, the toy automatically records that data and uses voice-recognition software to decode what was said. This information is sent via a Bluetooth connection to an app and the toy is then given phrases to say back to the child. Unlike the Hello Barbie doll, which requires children to press and hold down a button in order to record, these toys are always listening.

Always. Listening.

Now, some of us might think, OK, so these third parties are going to get tips on the use of lava in battle and intel on how older brothers smell like feet. Sounds like they're the ones with the bum deal here. There are three major problems, however. One is that the toy makers are getting more personal information than you might assume. For example, in order to interact more naturally with the child, the toy asks for: "the child's name, their parents' names, their school name, their hometown...allows for location setting...and collect[s] users' IP addresses."

Second, Bluetooth connections are notoriously insecure, which means that just about any Tom, Dick or Harry could listen in on your child or communicate with them through the doll. The below video from The Norwegian Consumer Council demonstrates this.

Parents who purchase these toys are not told that anything their child says to these toys is being recorded and can be used by Genesis Toys however they want. Genesis Toys sends their audio files to Nuance Communications, a group responsible for the more familiar Dragon voice recognition software. Oh, and they're also a defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

The terms of service say that this information is used to "improve the way the toys work and for 'other services and products,'" says Consumerist, a consumer news and information site. What other services and products, the company fails to specify.

More: Online safety tips your kids need before you let them loose on the internet

Nuance, by the way, includes the following in its privacy policy: "If you are under 18 or otherwise would be required to have parent or guardian consent to share information with Nuance, you should not send any information about yourself to us."

Under 18? You mean, like someone who would play with these talking dolls you sell? Gotcha.

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