NBC recently reported on Hello Barbie – the latest iteration of the world-famous doll. This particular model of the little blonde is revolutionary in two ways: first, it talks to children, and second, it does so via a WiFi connection. The article elaborates that the toy can “carry on a seemingly real conversation by recording what the child says and sending it via Wi-Fi to the cloud for Barbie’s computer-generated response”. At first this seems like a natural progression in an ever-increasingly-digital world – our refrigerators and door locks are online now! Besides, younger and younger children are using the internet, joining social media, and carrying smartphones. Sounds great, right?
Not so fast! As it turns out the conversations are going to be recorded and, what’s worse, kept indefinitely by Mattel’s partner in this endeavor, ToyTalk. Clearly there is room for concern here regarding children’s privacy, as well as the potential to market to little kids, which is morally questionable, at best. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is leading the charge against Barbie, claiming:
Hello Barbie is a terrible toy that threatens children’s privacy, well-being and creativity… We must stop Mattel and ToyTalk from spying on children’s private play and spawning a whole host of eavesdropping imitators.
Mattel, of course, defended their position and reiterated that children’s safety and privacy are their primary concerns. The company promised that there would be no advertising to children using this latest doll and made clear that parental consent would be required before the WiFi/AI feature was activated. Of course, nothing stops the toy giant from altering their terms and conditions (that are probably not well understood by consumers to begin with) at a later date, diminishing the defense of the Barbie. The official justification for these recordings is that they can help ToyTalk refine their software to better understand children’s speech patterns and, in turn, improve their interactions with Barbie. Mattel and ToyTalk also claim perfect transparency when it comes to their product and even provide a list of all the phrases that the Barbie can say, although it is a whole 270 pages with close to seven thousand sentences!
Interestingly, parental control does not stop at merely giving consent. Parents will actually be able to go online and listen to the recorded conversations between their child and Barbie. Privacy issues don’t stop there either, however – there other concerns, such as if the doll records a particular child’s friends’ conversations (violating their privacy), or the possibility that these recordings could be used in divorce proceedings and trials.
Meanwhile, social media has a new trending hashtag: #hellnobarbie, undoubtedly a poke at the official name of the doll – Hello Barbie. As of the time of writing, the hashtag had over 6k Tweets and 4.5k followers and growing. Perhaps we aren’t quite read to let pre-teens loose into the world of social media and electronic communication, though it will be interesting to see how Mattel and ToyTalk end up dealing with this seemingly unexpected, yet significant, backlash.