The new “creepy” Hello Barbie is the first Barbie of its kind to intelligently interact with children. Thanks to technology, Hello Barbie can have a two-way conversation with children by recording and analyzing their speech. Parents and privacy advocates call that eavesdropping and are trying to keep Hello Barbie off of store shelves.
Mattel’s Hello Barbie is WiFi connected and records everything that is said to it. Hello Barbie sends these recordings over the web for analysis and sends back the perfect response using speech recognition software called Pullstring developed by San Francisco startup company ToyTalk. Recordings can be stored on cloud servers for as long as two years.
Toy companies like Mattel want to stay current with available technology, but parents are worried about Hello Barbie “spying” on their children. No cameras are involved, but even voice recording is going too far for some parents when it comes to protecting their child’s privacy. Some parents say the concept is predatory and that they would never allow a private company to record conversations in their home.
Privacy advocacy groups like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are worried about Mattel using the data collected to market to children. According to Angela Campbell, faculty adviser at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, “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.”
Children are already being tracked through other interactive devices, such as cell phones, tablets and gaming devices that are Internet-connected. Mattel claims the data collected by Hello Barbie is “secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users.” Mattel went on to say that Hello Barbie conforms to all applicable government privacy standards. Parents have to opt-in to allow their children to use the online voice recognition feature. Parents can also sign on anytime and have access to all of their child’s recordings.
Despite controversy surrounding Hello Barbie, the $75 WiFi connected doll is due to hit store shelves this fall, just in time for the Holiday shopping season. Parents are saying they just won’t buy the doll. Mattel says they are simply supplying a product that parents have been inquiring about for years, a Barbie that finally responds to a “girls’ desire to chat with the doll.”