These Dolls Were Classified as 'Hidden Espionage Devices' in One Country

These days, we’re all connected. To the Internet, that is. Our phones, watches, televisions, and even some refrigerators have the capacity to link to the Internet. We can control the temperature of our home virtually, and now with Alexa and Amazon Echo speakers, we can talk and ask a computer to do just about anything for us. But where should we draw the line when it comes to getting online?

Regulators in Germany have decided that when it comes to devices that can be used for spying, especially on children and their parents, being “connected” is not a good thing. My Friend Cayla is a doll that recently became popular, but those who have purchased it are being asked to destroy it. So what did Cayla do that was so bad? CNET explains:

Cayla dolls, which incorporate microphones and ask kids questions about themselves and their parents, are classified as “hidden espionage devices,” the possession and selling of which are banned by German law.

It’s not the first time Genesis Toys, which manufactures Cayla, has been in trouble over the doll. In December the Electronic Privacy Information Center alleged to the US Federal Trade Commission that the doll violates privacy rules, recording conversations and transmitting audio files to a remote server without parental consent. Complaints have also been filed with consumer watchdogs for the European Union, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Norway.

Since My Friend Cayla has the potential to steal the information of the children who play with it, she is a no-no in Germany. The doll has been removed from the market by the Federal Network Agency, and parents who have already purchased Cayla are actually expected to destroy her. Seem a little extreme? Maybe not when it comes to small children.

Consumerist explains how the toy operates:

They connect via Bluetooth to a mobile phone app, usually belonging to a parent, and then from there access the internet in order to interact with kids and answer their questions. To accomplish that feat, the apps record and collect conversations between the toys and the kids, and use speech-to-text protocols to turn kids’ questions into searchable queries.

When users first set up the app for their toy, they may be sharing data you don’t want shared. Cayla in particular asks for multiple pieces of personal information — the child’s name, their parents’ names, their school name, their hometown, among other questions — so it can converse more naturally. The app also allows for location setting, and both the Cayla and i-Que apps collect users’ IP addresses.

If that doesn’t creep you out, maybe this will: the information is then transmitted to the servers at the headquarters of Nuance Communications, the company that provides Cayla with her voice-parsing services. According to Nuance’s privacy policy that covers My Friend Cayla, the company:

“…may use the information that we collect for our internal purposes to develop, tune, enhance, and improve our products and services, and for advertising and marketing consistent with this Privacy Policy.”

It continues, “If you are under 18 or otherwise would be required to have parent or guardian consent to share information with Nuance, you should not send any information about yourself to us.”

That complicates matters a bit, since the toy is intended for small children. When CNET reached out to Genesis Toys for its story, the company did not immediately respond.

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