Hello Barbie

“Honey, I wish there were more opportunities for large corporations to eavesdrop on our children”, said no one ever. Yet Mattel claimed in a statement that the “number 1 requested” feature for their Barbie series is a doll that talks back. The doll is finally here and likely to be banned from military bases around the globe due to its severe privacy issues. 

Why and how is it creepy?

A talking Barbie is every little girl’s dream right? I don’t doubt that this feature is in fact in demand, it is Mattel’s execution of the feature that is in question. Essentially your little girl (or boy) can push a button on Barbie’s belt and talk to Barbie. Barbie records the child’s phrase, connects to WiFi, sends it off to Mattel’s servers to be interpreted, and then directs Barbie to respond. It gets worse… Mattel will store its learnings about your child in the cloud for up to two years. The company claims that storing this information in the cloud will enable Barbie to become more intelligent over time, allowing Barbie to reference older conversations when talking with your child. This would be an incredible feature in a world not pummeled in data security issues. Just take a look at a demonstration of Hello Barbie at this year’s New York Toy Fair:

Privacy advocates are worried that Mattel is going to analyze this data to improve their marketing tactics on our children. The Barbie is recording children during their most honest and intimate moments in life. This data would be invaluable to a company wanting to know how to best resonate with children whose parent’s toy purchases fill their wallets. 

One such group known as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has been very expressive of their concerns. An executive director for the organization known as Susan Lin stated the following, “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,” 

Mattel claims they are following all necessary data privacy laws and regulations with Hello Barbie. A spokesperson for Mattel stated the following to CNN:

Mattel is committed to safety and security, and ‘Hello Barbie’ conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act

Additionally, Mattel has stated that they do not intend to use any data for marketing purposes.  According to UPI.com, “Oren Jacob, CEO of Mattel’s tech partner on the project ToyTalk, stressed that parental permission is needed for any of the recording to be used for enhancement of future models and the data would never be used for marketing.” Even if this statement is true, privacy advocates are not likely to be satisfied as children’s conversations are being stored in a cloud that could become the target of the next large-scale cyber-attack.

The Unfortunate Truth

The unfortunate truth of the doll is that it is simply ahead of its time. To satisfy concerned parents, Mattel is going to need to disconnect the device from the cloud and handle all things in an offline environment within Barbie. For the device to have effective offline vocal recognition, it would require a processor that would make “Hello Barbie” inhibitively expensive. Add the need for sufficient memory to store ongoing information about your child, and you have a Barbie that could cost upwards of hundreds of dollars. 

Today, the only way around this is to utilize both the processing power and storage space of the cloud. However, with all of the  cyber-security issues that have been making headlines as of late, consumers are becoming weary of giving their cyber-trust to corporations. Add the layer of complexity that children bring to cyber-security, and you’ve got a product that is likely to fail before it ever hits the shelves. However, one day Mattel will bring “Hello Barbie” to the masses the right way and it is going to be every little girl’s dream. It’s just not looking like today. 

What do you think of Hello Barbie? Would you be comfortable letting your daughter/son have intimate conversations with Mattel?