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What moms need to know about the ‘spying’ Barbie doll


Barbie has had her share of controversy in the past: From her impossible body to her multiple professional careers (who has that many doctorates?) to her stint on the cover of Sports Illustrated, she’s no stranger to scandal.

The new Hello Barbie has parents worried again, and this time it’s over child privacy. Is this toy, which is expected to hit stores at the end of this week, really the “eavesdropping” menace it’s being painted as? Or is it far more benign?

Here’s everything you need to know about the newest toy to stir the pot and draw criticism. It’s up to you to weigh the pros and cons.

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1. She works on Wi-Fi

In order to get Barbie to work, you’ve got to download an app and get her hooked up to your wireless network. She’ll remember up to three locations, and Mattel suggests that “while it may be fun to play with Hello Barbie on a third-party network… we encourage parents to consider the venue when they are setting up the doll.”

2. She’s COPPA compliant

The FTC’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, was put in place to protect kids under 13 online, and requires websites and services directed at kids to thoroughly protect the “personal information” of the children who use them. For example, under COPPA, “personal information” includes a child’s first or last name, so Hello Barbie doesn’t ask for that. She might ask for a middle name, though.

3. But she still records conversations…

Those conversations get sent to a third party, Toy Talk, for “research and development purposes, such as to maintain and analyze the functioning of our products, to improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms and to create better entertainment experiences. We do not use the recordings or their content to contact children or to advertise to them.”

4. …And you can listen to them

When you hook up Hello Barbie, you need to make a parent account and give your consent for the recordings. You’ll also be able to access your child’s conversations with the dolls from that account. If you were so inclined, you could share those recordings over social media, but sharing is not automatically enabled.

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5. But they also go out to “third party vendors”

Toy Talk insists these vendors are not used to glean data for advertising, but rather to “enhance” the Hello Barbie experience by improving voice recognition and artificial intelligence. They also share some transcripts (there’s no way to tell if your child’s is one of them) with Mattel to help script the doll. And speaking of scripts…

6. You can read Hello Barbie’s scripts ahead of time

You can download a PDF of Barbie’s thousands of phrases and read them all, if you’re having trouble falling asleep. Many of them revolve around fashion:

“So now that we’ve used our imagination and played games, let’s get serious and talk about something really important… FASHION!”

“We’ve been talking a bit about school, why don’t we try on something else for size… let’s chat about fashion!”

“I remember you were interested in fashion design, wanna talk about fashion now?”

“So you know what we haven’t talked about in a while? Fashion!”

But she also sings songs:

“Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay / Ta-ra-ra Boom-de ay / now we can have some fun / and play the day away! / and play the daaay awaaay!”

And discusses how self-conscious she is about her middle name, Millicent:

“Alright, I’ll tell you… it’s Millicent! What do you think?”

“Sometimes I get a little nervous when I tell people my middle name.”

“But I’m really glad I told you!”

“Now you’re my middle name friend! Let’s keep playing and talking together!”

Also, she might ask about your child’s dreams, so there’s that:

“What’s the most interesting dream you’ve ever written about?”

“Ooh! Tell me about it!”

“Well, what’s one you do remember?”

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7. If your child spills some personal beans, Mattel says they’ll delete it.

In order to be COPPA compliant, the doll can’t ask for things like a physical address. If your kid volunteers it, though? Mattel says that parents are the first line of defense, but if anything slips through the cracks they’re adamant they are on the case: “If we become aware of any such personal information… it is our policy to delete such information, and we contractually require our Service Providers to do the same.”

8. Hello Barbie is not always listening

One fear parents have is that the doll will act as a bug, wordlessly spying on their children with her vacant, knowing stare. Mattel says this isn’t the case: “Similar to Siri, the speech recognition in Hello Barbie is activated only when the user is pushing down on the doll’s belt buckle.”

Overall, it looks like Mattel and Toy Talk are aware of parenting concerns and are working overtime leading up to the doll’s release to assuage any fears. Like all decisions parents make when it comes to protecting their children’s safety, it’s ultimately going to require due diligence and research. Parents can start by checking out Toy Talk’s and Mattel’s FAQ sections, by checking out Hello Barbie’s script for yourself and by calling Mattel at 1-888-256-0224 if you’re considering purchasing the doll but still have concerns.

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