Blog #20: Hello Barbie and Privacy Implications

By: Amy Farina

Like most young children, I used to have one-way conversations with my Barbie dolls. But starting in fall 2015, Barbie will now listen and talk back. Toy maker Mattel teamed up with Toy Talk, a company that creates conversational toys, to reveal Hello Barbie last month at the New York Toy Fair.[1] Hello Barbie allows children to have actual conversations through a microphone, speaker, and two light-emitting diodes (LEDs) embedded in the doll.[2] Once connected to a Wi-Fi network, Barbie can play interactive games, share stories, and tell jokes.[3] Sounds great right? But here’s the catch—Barbie can not only listen to a child’s conversations but also record them and send the audio recording to Toy Talk’s cloud-based server. The child’s speech will then be analyzed so that Barbie can respond individually to the child.[4]

Mattel and Toy Talk programmed Hello Barbie with a script to read, and depending on what the child says, Barbie will directly respond to the child.[5] Privacy advocates like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are urging Mattel to refrain from selling the doll.[6] The advocacy group argues that recording information about the child puts the child at risk for having his or her personal information hacked or targeted for stealth marketing.[7] Mattel insists that the information that Barbie gathers from a child will not be used for marketing or publicity purposes.[8] Although the privacy policy for Hello Barbie is still being developed, parents will likely have to create an account online and consent to their children’s voices being recorded.[9] Additionally, parents can choose to receive emails with access to the conversations their child had with Hello Barbie.[10] Toy Talk’s privacy policy allows for the use of storing, processing, and transcribing recordings to improve speech recognition, research development, and data analysis.[11] Additionally, Toy Talk shares the collection of recordings with third party vendors who work on speech recognition.[12]

Mattel also maintains that Hello Barbie is safe and complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) that Congress passed in 2000.[13] The Act stipulates that website providers have to post clear privacy guidelines describing what the information collected online from children under the age of thirteen will be used for and have to obtain verifiable parental consent.[14] Unlike Siri or Google Now, Toy Talk insists that its technology never searches the open web for answers, but that their team will write the doll’s responses.[15] During Mattel’s demonstration at the New York Toy Fair, the doll asked personal questions about the child, the child’s interests, and the child’s family.[16]The doll answered the child’s questions based upon previous conversations with the child.[17] Unlike other voice recognition technology that is primarily used by adults, Hello Barbie is targeted at young children who are unaware of the dangers of revealing private information. What if Hello Barbie records background noise of someone in the house reading their credit card information? What if the child asks Barbie an inappropriate question? What if someone hacks into Hello Barbie and steals personal information about the child or the child’s family?

A big issue with Hello Barbie is the fact that children think they are only talking to their toy when in reality they are talking to a company who is looking for financial gain. Mattel toy sales have been dropping as the company struggles to design toys fit for the 21st century.[18] COPPA has been highly criticized as being unconstitutional and containing safety loopholes. Because the law does not prohibit corporations from advertising to children, what if a child, for example, asks Hello Barbie what he or she should eat for dinner, and Barbie replies, “Dominos Pizza?” With this loophole, it would be easy for Barbie to not only collect information from children for advertising purposes, but also to encourage children to buy certain products or buy additional Mattel dolls.

Hello Barbie is not the first technology to raise privacy concerns. Recently, Samsung warned its users that their Smart Televisions have the ability to pick up conversations and transmit it to third parties.[19]Samsung insists that the company does not retain voice data or sell it to third parties; however, if a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, the data is then provided to a third party.[20]Additionally, in November 2014, Vivid Toy Group released Cayla, which is a doll that uses speech recognition and Google Translation.[21] A few months later, a security researcher found vulnerability in the software, which allowed the doll to be hacked to say things unsuitable for children.[22]

By recording and analyzing the conversations that a child has with Barbie, Mattel is essentially eavesdropping. Children often tell their toys intimate secrets about themselves or their families and, unlike adults, children are unaware of the implications of sharing private information over the Internet. It is troublesome to think that companies can listen to a private conversation between a child and his or her doll along with surrounding noises and conversations. It is also not convincing that the data recorded will not be used for marketing purposes or that this data is safe from hackers. Hello Barbie, or “eavesdropping” Barbie, hits shelves next fall, so remember that Barbie is listening.

[1] Barbie Doll Will be Internet Connected to Chat to Kids, BBC Online (Feb. 17, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31502898.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Hello Barbie, Goodbye Privacy? Why Some are Calling New Doll ‘Creepy, MSN News (Mar. 12, 2015), http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/hello-barbie-goodbye-privacy-why-some-are-calling-new-doll-creepy/ar-AA9EYaC.

[5] Hello Barbie: Hang On, This Wi-Fi Doll Records Your Child’s Voice, The Register (Feb. 19, 2015),http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/02/19/hello_barbie/.

[6] MSN, supra note 4.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Privacy Advocates Try to Keep ‘Creepy’ ‘Eavesdropping’ Hello Barbie from Hitting Shelves, Wash Post (Mar. 11, 2015),http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2015/03/11/privacy-advocates-try-to-keep-creepy-eavesdropping-hello-barbie-from-hitting-shelves/?tid=sm_fb.

[10] Id.

[11] This ‘Smart’ Barbie is Raising Concerns over Children’s Privacy, The Verge (Mar. 16, 2015), http://www.theverge.com/2015/3/16/8223251/hello-barbie-speech-recognition-privacyrecognition-privacy.

[12] Id.

[13] Hello Barbie, Goodbye Privacy? Why Some are Calling New Doll ‘Creepy,’ MSN News (Mar. 12, 2015) http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/hello-barbie-goodbye-privacy-why-some-are-calling-new-doll-creepy/ar-AA9EYaC.

[14] 15 U.S.C.A. § 6501 (1998).

[15] Alejandro Alba, Mattel’s Talking Hello Barbie Doll Raises Concern over Children’s Privacy, New York Daily News (Mar. 16, 2015),http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/mattel-barbie-raises-concern-children-privacy-article-1.2151019.

[16] Samuel Gibbs, Privacy Fears over ‘Smart’ Barbie that Can Listen to Your Kids, The Guardian (Mar. 13, 2015),http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/13/smart-barbie-that-can-listen-to-your-kids-privacy-fears-mattel.

[17] Id.

[18] MSN, supra note 4

[19] Alejandro Alba, supra note 15.

[20] Id.

[21] Barbie Doll Will be Internet Connected to Chat to Kids, BBC Online (Feb. 17, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-31502898.

[22] Id.