Culture

Newest Spy Gadget: Barbie

From our “What will they think of next” Department comes the story of a new fangled Barbie doll that will hit the market next fall. Not only can little girls (and little boys in those households where such things are tolerated) dress up the doll and talk to it; Barbie will now be able to talk back.

Branded “Hello Barbie” by Mattel, the doll uses Wi-Fi and voice recognition technology to make responding in context possible:

Here’s how it works: Your child pushes a button to chat, and Barbie will “listen” through an embedded microphone. She then sends the audio to a cloud-based server, operated by Mattel’s technology partner ToyTalk, which then records the speech and processes it. Then Barbie responds to the question or comment.

But all is not well in Barbieland. Privacy advocates are raising alarms at the potential of the toy to record and store your child’s conversations with the doll:

Privacy advocates and parents have dubbed the doll “Eavesdropping Barbie” and are concerned about their children’s conversations being recorded and stored.

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

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood launched an online petition on Wednesday to stop Mattel from releasing the doll. The petition already has more than 3,000 signatures.

“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, CCFC’s director, said in a statement. “It’s creepy — and creates a host of dangers for children and families.”

Will the evil toy conglomerate painstakingly go through several hundred thousand conversations between “Hello Barbie” dolls and little girls to get marketing info and maybe some fodder to blackmail the family?

I wouldn’t necessarily put it past them, except that’s a hugely expensive means of getting information on customers. A survey at point of sale would be much cheaper. As your child is whispering her deepest and most private girly desires to Barbie it just doesn’t make sense that Mattel would be very interested in the content.

But what if Mattel decided to sell the conversations to someone who would find going through all those recordings profitable? It can’t be ruled out, which is why the privacy advocates’ concerns are not entirely misplaced.

Next up for Barbie: “NSA Barbie” who listens in on other people’s phone conversations to save America from terrorists. She doesn’t speak, but will gladly listen to and record your little girl’s most intimate thoughts for transmission later to headquarters.