Are Smart Barbies a Threat to Children’s Privacy?


Image Source: Time

Toymaker Mattel unveiled its new toy, ‘Hello Barbie’ in February 2015, at the New York Toy Fair. Hello Barbie is a WI-Fi enabled smart doll that records a child’s conversations in order  to learn about his/her likes, dislikes and ambitions.

Demonstration of the doll at the fair showed its capacity to recall and respond to information. During the demo, a representative from Mattel pressed a button that activated the doll’s microphone and said to the Barbie that she likes being on stage. Later, when the representative asked the Barbie what she should be when she grew up; to which the doll responded: “Well, you told me you like being on stage, so maybe a dancer? Or a politician? Or how about a dancing politician? I always say, anything is possible.”

As posted by The Verge, Hello Barbie uses speech recognition technology created by a San Francisco startup called ToyTalk. ToyTalk in the past, had also created a number of paid iOS apps that let children have conversations with a range of creatures, from animals in the zoo to mythical beasts.

However, advocates from the campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood (CCFC) are demanding that  Mattel should halt its production, as they believe the technology could be abused.

Angela Campbell, a law professor and a privacy specialist, said in a statement from the CCFC, “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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ToyTalk’s privacy policy states that it may use, store, process, and transcribe recordings in order to improve speech recognition technology, and carry out research and development and data analysis. Further stating that the policy is still under development, and the parents will probably have to sign into an app and consent to having the child’s voice recorded before the technology is activated.

Susan Linn, the director of the CCFC, said, “this is unequivocally creepy and creates a host of dangers for children and families. Kids using Hello Barbie aren’t only talking to a doll, but they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial.”

The response of children towards Hello Barbie can not be predicted until the toy is launched in the market. This technology also has its pros and cons. Where on one side it can be useful for parents, as they can keep a track of their kids life and issues (if any, like being bullied in school) revolving around them. Whereas, on the other the technology can also prove to be harmful (for self and family) as it can not be predetermined what the child might say or disclose that can get recorded.

Also, for some kids it might turn out to be a scary creepy concept, somewhat like the movie ‘Child’s Play’. Nevertheless, it might be a useful concept for some kids who are introvert or are affected by something that’s troubling them, as they will be able to speak out without any fear.