Digital Life

Hello Barbie, Is Your Microphone Still On?

Hello Barbie from Mattel
Hello Barbie, interactive doll. Promotional photo from Mattel.
Solana Larsen
Written by Solana Larsen

It should come as no surprise that eagerness for innovation (and a sales profit) can get in the way of privacy and security considerations.

Consider the new wifi-connected “Hello Barbie” doll from Mattel and Toytalk that can listen to children’s voices using a microphone and respond like a real “best friend”. Depending on your outlook and level of trust, you may simply see a fun toy. Or you might see an opportunity to hack directly into people’s homes, as one hacker claims he could.

The toy companies say they see an opportunity to get to know your children better. In fact, the doll remembers what kids say so that conversations can evolve over time. But the recordings aren’t stored on the doll itself, they are encrypted and transmitted to corporate computers where they can be evaluated and compared with data from other dolls.

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in the United States is campaigning against the “eavesdropping Barbie” with a #HellNoBarbie hashtag and list of reasons to leave the toy on the shelf.

Toytalk has responded to security concerns and launched a bounty program for anyone who is able to identify security vulnerabilities. Several hackers have been rewarded with bounties of $100 or more according to a timeline on the program page.

Where do we draw the line?

There is a risk associated with using any wifi-connected device, and plenty of adults happily use voice command services on their smart phones like Apple’s “Siri” or “Google Now”. The question for everyone is, where to draw the line. At what point do we think the risk outweighs the benefits, and on whose behalf are we willing to accept those risks?

Do you feel confident that there are strong legal protections in place to protect private information shared by your children? Do you feel confident that you know which companies have access to the data? Do you feel confident that companies would never sell a toy that is not safe?

If you answered ‘no’ to any of those questions, you might turn around and ask the same questions about the devices you use in your daily life.

Not to paralyze you with fear or anything, but it is worth saying that we need to be critical of all our online interactions, and do what we can to develop robust standards and safeguards for the future.

About the author

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen

Solana Larsen is co-author of the cookbook "Recipes for a Digital Revolution". She writes a newsletter for Web We Want and helped create this website. Formerly, she was the managing editor of Global Voices Online. Solana is a Danish-Puerto Rican journalist and digital activist.

1 Comment

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