Sometimes, most of the time, technology is innovative and exciting. Other times, it’s downright creepy. Mattel has created a new Barbie doll that talks to kids through voice recognition (kind of like Apple’s Siri), and kids can ask Barbie a question to get a response.
Mattel is calling it the first ‘Smart Doll,’ but privacy groups are insisting that this doll never hits market shelves.
The Problem With Smart Barbie
Those groups that are against the new Barbie worry that the information Mattel sends to third parties will not keep kids safe. Also, any details about children that use the Barbie will be used for marketing purposes, and this is somewhat concerning. The Smart Barbie is programmed to ask kids a bunch of personal questions like their age, what they like to do, where they live, and other bits of information that parents may not want kids to reveal to marketers or to a major toy company.
In order for the new Barbie to respond to children, the information that is given to Barbie must be sent to a company called ToyTalk for processing. ToyTalk, based in San Francisco, gathers and interprets the conversations in order to send back a response to a child. Mattel claims that this step is necessary in order for the doll to work properly, but the company isn’t denying the fact that any information given to the doll will be used by the company.
Mattel claims that the details children give to dolls will only be used to better the company’s existing products, and to help Mattel create newer dolls for future generations. But, this is exactly the concern that many privacy advocates have with the new doll. Marketing to children in this direct manner is unfair, and it’s something that advocacy groups want better control over.
Smart Barbie connects to the Internet via WiFi, and the doll responds faster to inquiries the more the doll is used, and the better the doll ‘knows’ what past responses were. In order to use the toy, parents must sign up with Mattel online, and agree to a number of privacy clauses. While the toy isn’t always listening to what’s happening with a child, all a child has to do is push a button on the doll to activate the listening feature. In many ways, this doll can be seen as creepy in addition to being a major privacy concern.
Not Enough Privacy
Mattel does claim that any audio recorded is encrypted before being sent to the processing company via the Internet, but this isn’t enough to appease advocacy groups. In addition to sending the information recorded from the Barbie to ToyTalk, ToyTalk hands off these same details to third party processing companies for further processing - what this process is, exactly, isn’t entirely clear.
The biggest issue here is that children are unaware that they are being monitored when using a toy such as this one. Advocacy groups claim that anyone using the toy must be able to understand what happens when the information is processed. Further, this doll could eventually start selling more Mattel products to children after learning information (this hasn’t been confirmed by Mattel, but it is a concern). Those privacy groups that are against the sale of this doll want to block it completely from hitting store shelves this coming December.