In Mattel’s most recent attempt to save themselves from drowning in the sea of commerce, it has released a new Barbie that can actually listen and respond to your child. Sound creepy? Well, that’s because it is. She’s called “Hello Barbie” (clever), and she has voice recognition software that allows her to have sort-of real conversations with anyone who talks to her (while pushing a button, of course). But here’s the kicker: Your voice will be recorded as an audio file and transmitted over the internet to cloud-based servers that will create an appropriate response back.
We know the dangers of putting personal information out into the internet world, so why would parents let their kids talk freely to a doll that can record everything in the cloud? According to ToyTalk, the company responsible for this new toy technology, all those sound files of children’s voices would never be stored for purposes other than for improving the toy.
Oren Jacob, ToyTalk’s chief executive, told The Washington Post, “The data is never used for anything to do with marketing or publicity or any of that stuff. Not at all.” I suppose we’ll just have to take your word for it, Mr. Jacob.
Meanwhile, a privacy advocacy group called Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood released a petition yesterday calling for Mattel to cease production of Hello Barbie because it blatantly invades children’s (and their parents’) privacy. Here’s what they say about it on their website:
“Imagine your children playing with a Wi-Fi-connected doll that records their conversations — and then transmits them to a corporation which analyzes every word to learn ‘all of [the child’s] likes and dislikes.’ That’s exactly what Mattel’s eavesdropping ‘Hello Barbie’ will do if it is released this fall, as planned. But we can stop it!” I would say the group makes some pretty valid points here.
The group says the doll could also be used for “stealth advertising.” Essentially the doll’s responses could subtly encourage kids to ask their parents for new Mattel toys — another scary aspect of an already disturbing doll-child relationship. They explain that children’s candid answers to the Barbie’s targeted questions could be used to help Mattel unfairly market to them, which needless to say is unethical, especially if they don’t have express permission from parents.
Oh, but ToyTalk’s already thought of that! According to the company, “Parents probably will have to sign into an app, create an account and consent to their children’s voices being recorded.” Of course. I mean, if you’re going to be using what children say for marketing purposes, you always have to get permission from the parents first. Good thinking, ToyTalk. But it gets weirder. They try to make it look like they’re giving parents total control over what happens with their children’s conversations, but that just makes Hello Barbie seem like more of a toy spy than she already is.
“We want to make sure parents are in control of their family’s data at all times,” said Jacob to The Washington Post in reference to parents’ option to receive weekly emails with their kids’ audio files. While I’m sure there are some parents who would love to overhear what their children tell Barbie, most feel like it’s a huge invasion of privacy.
Susan Linn, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s director, called this extra interactive level “troubling,” because “children confide in their dolls.”
The doll is set to hit stores this fall if Campaign’s petition isn’t successful. However, it likely won’t be the last “interactive doll” that uses this type of technology to engage. Children today are more interested in online apps and games than ever before, and if dolls don’t keep up with the technology, they’ll be left in the dust. While Mattel’s attempt might not be successful, it is a good idea of what’s to come in the developing world of “engagement toys.”
Take a look at what Hello Barbie can do. If you’re familiar with Twilight Zone‘s “Talking Tina” episode, it will probably terrify you. Who knows what things this doll could be capable of in the wrong hands?
“Big brother” doll much?