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Mattel Discloses New Internet-Connected Doll With Voice-Recognition Software. Goodbye Privacy?

Mattel logo Recently at a toy fair in New York, Mattel announced the upcoming availability of a new doll product, Hello Barbie. The Internet-connected doll will also contain voice recognition software, allowing it to perform more interactive conversations. The Washington Post reported:

"To revive the sinking sales of its flagship brand, Mattel is bringing Barbie to life with voice-recognition software that will allow the doll to "listen" to children speak and give chatty responses. It will learn over time, remembering your dog's name and adjusting to new topics."

Image of the upcoming Hello Barbie doll. Click to view larger image Basically, the doll product leverages technologies already in use in consumer smart phones and other mobile devices:

"Hello Barbie works by recording a child's voice with an embedded microphone that is triggered by pressing a button on the doll. As the doll "listens," audio recordings travel over the Web to a server where the snippets of speech are recognized and processed. That information is used to help form Hello Barbie's responses."

The Washington Post described a demonstration of the doll by a Mattel representative:

"... the Mattel representative chatting with Hello Barbie mentioned that she liked being onstage. Later in the conversation, when the Mattel representative asked Hello Barbie what she should be when she grew up, the doll responded, "Well, you told me you like being onstage. So maybe a dancer? Or a politician? Or how about a dancing politician?" "

The toy manufacturer claims that young girls asked for a doll with better interactive conversations. Besides the line of Barbie® doll products, Mattel makes Hot Wheels®, Monster High®, American Girl®, Thomas & Friends® and Fisher-Price® brands, including Little People® and Power Wheels®, MEGA® Brands, and more. The new doll product will be available in stores in the fall.

Privacy advocates are rightly concerned. To operate as describe, the doll product must record, collect, and transmit to a centralized serve children's conversations. The doll product raises several privacy issues:

  • How young is too young for children to create digital footprints?
  • The product deceives youth into believing they are talking to a doll, when they are really talking to a corporation recording their conversations. Is this deception something parents want to enable?
  • What is the privacy policy with the Hello Barbie doll?
  • What privacy options will parents have to opt out of the data collection?
  • What companies, partners, affiliates, and government agencies will Mattel share children's recorded conversations with?
  • Do the new technologies in the doll actually improve children's play?
  • Are the conversations of nearby children, and adults, also recorded?
  • What safeguards and software protections will the doll product have against hacking? One must assume that since hackers and spy agencies can remotely control your smart phone, tablet and laptop camera and speaker, they can with a product like Hello Barbie.

I'd love to read Mattel's focus group research that concluded parents viewed Hello Barbie a good product idea for young children, ages four through nine. Children of that age are too young to understand privacy issues. I asked several parents of young children what they thought of Hello Barbie. While this wasn't a scientific study, all of the mothers said "no." None wanted their young children playing with an Internet-connected doll like Hello Barbie.

Mattel's work on Hello Barbie highlights another consideration. When companies experience financial difficulty, they seem to frequently turn to big data (e.g., the collection and resale of consumer information) to develop new revenues. Is that what Mattel is doing? One wonders.

In my opinion, Hello Barbie is another privacy-invasive product to thrown on the pile of bad products, along with Google Glass.

Mattel has a large number of BARBIE® dolls: Careers Scientist, Careers Lifeguard, 2015 Birthday Wishes® Doll - Hispanic, Fashionistas African-American Doll, Style Resort Grace™ Doll, 2015 Ballet Wishes® Doll, Careers Rock Star, Careers Tennis Player, and many more. To encourage girls to pursue careers in law enforcement and surveillance, maybe Mattel should have named the new doll "Barbie Careers N.S.A." or "Barbie Careers F.B.I." instead.

What are your opinions of the upcoming Hello Barbie doll? Do you think that it is a good idea? Parents: would you want your young children playing with Internet-connected dolls? Grandparents: do you think this is a good gift idea?


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