Hello Barbie, goodbye privacy? Why some are calling new doll 'creepy'

Privacy advocates are calling Mattel's latest Barbie doll 'eavesdropping Barbie.' The doll simulates two-way conversations with kids by recording children's speech.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Hello Barbie is displayed at the Mattel showroom at the North American International Toy Fair, Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015 in New York. Mattel, in partnership with San Francisco startup ToyTalk, will release the Internet-connected version of the doll that has real conversations with kids in late 2015.

Can Hello Barbie spy on your child?

That's what privacy advocates are saying about toymaker Mattel's newest doll, which has two-way conversations with kids by recording children's speech and sending it over the web in order to simulate a response - technology alternately called "perfect" and "creepy."

Hello Barbie underscores the challenge toy companies face as they embrace new technology to innovate and remain current with a digital generation but must simultaneously navigate privacy and safety issues with parents. 

Renaming it "eavesdropping" Barbie, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched a petition Wednesday urging Mattel to stop the doll from being sold, the Washington Post first reported.

The group's advocates call the technology "creepy," and say recording and storing information about children's likes, dislikes, interests, and more, leaves them vulnerable to hacking and stealth marketing.

"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,” Angela Campbell, faculty adviser at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said in a statement. “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."

"Kids using 'Hello Barbie' aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial," Susan Linn, the group's executive director, also said in a statement. "It's creepy -- and creates a host of dangers for children and families.”

The iconic doll uses a speech-recognition platform called Pullstring, developed by San Francisco startup ToyTalk, that allows writers to create evolving dialogue based on what kids say.

Here's how it works: Children can press a button on Hello Barbie's belt to chat, Barbie “listens” to their speech and sends the audio recording over a WiFi connection to ToyTalk’s cloud-based servers, where the child's speech is recognized and processed. Barbie can then make an intelligent response.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported in an earlier piece, "Once fully charged and connected to WiFi, Hello Barbie will be able to play interactive games, tell jokes and stories, and collect information about a child’s conversation for future use. If a kid talks to Barbie about dancing, for instance, the doll may mention it in a later chat."

But that smart technology is what worries privacy advocates. Already, in a demonstration for the BBC, a security researcher revealed hacking vulnerabilities in a similar Internet-connected doll, My Friend Cayla, when he showed how a skilled programmer could hack the doll to say creepy or inappropriate things to a child.

But Mattel is standing by its doll and insists Hello Barbie is safe.

"Mattel is committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act," the company said in a statement. "Additionally, Hello Barbie’s technology features a number of safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users."

And chief executive Oren Jacob of ToyTalk, which created the technology in the doll, told the Washington Post that the audio files are “never used for anything to do with marketing or publicity or any of that stuff. Not at all.” The technology, he insisted, is used to improve speech recognition.

The controversy comes at a troubled time for the toymaker. Mattel saw its profit tumble 59 percent in the fourth quarter. Sales of Barbie sank 21 percent, and sales of its baby-oriented Fisher-Price brand declined 16 percent.

Hello Barbie is its attempt to bring its toys into the 21st century and boost sagging sales. But, as the Post points out, in doing so, Mattel and other toymakers face a delicate balance: "trying to figure out how to cater to children’s affinity for technology and gadgets while meeting parents’ expectations about privacy and security."

"Internet-connected toys mean that children are forging their digital footprint earlier than ever, leaving parents to make thorny decisions about what kinds of technology limits to put in place during playtime."

For now, that decision will be up to parents. Hello Barbie is still scheduled to hit stores this fall.

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