Using WiFi and voice recognition technology, Hello Barbie can record conversations and talk back, using the recorded information to mimic a conversation between friends. She can remember. She can learn. Cool?
Creepy, according to the U.S.-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has garnered more than 5,000 names in less than a week from the U.S. and Canada on a petition asking Mattel to yank the toy.
“This has taken off like no campaign we’ve ever done. People are outraged. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
“I think it’s the creep factor … It just opens a whole Pandora’s box of what could happen.”
Oren Jacob, chief executive officer of ToyTalk, the San Francisco company behind the technology, points out that several billion smartphones and tablets in the world already connect to the Internet and come with built-in microphones.
Hello Barbie is a highly controlled experience, according to Jacob.
“Mattel is committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. 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,” according to a release Mattel has been circulating since last week.
That doesn’t reassure Golin, who says Mattel has not contacted his organization.
“I think that people understand that when children play with dolls, they say intimate things. They treat the doll like a playmate or a friend. Young children don’t have filters to understand what is sensitive information and what is personal. That information is going to be listened to by other people, people whose only interest is financial. I think that creeps people out.”
Jacob said ToyTalk will not monitor kids’ conversations in real time. Audio will be sent directly to their servers in the cloud and processed automatically. Mattel will not collect, receive or analyze any children’s audio data.
Tobi Cohen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, said it hasn’t examined Hello Barbie and can’t offer specific comments, but the commissioner is aware of the issues raised by the technology.
“Our office is currently looking at the privacy issues that can arise from increasingly smart devices, or the Internet of Things, and we expect to publish a series of research papers later this year,” according to Cohen.
Golin said the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood successfully lobbied Hasbro to abandon the idea of a line of dolls modelled after the Pussycat Dolls, a real-life burlesque troupe turned music group famous for their sexualized lyrics and dance routines.
Watch Hello Barbie in action.