Shedding Light in the Darkness

Say Hello to Creepy Barbie


“At a recent New York toy fair, a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: ‘Welcome to New York, Barbie’,” reported the Washington Post.

“The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: ‘I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?’”

Welcome to the interactive world of creepy Barbie.

According to reports in the Washington Post and The New York Times, Hello Barbie is “the world’s first interactive Barbie doll.”

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.

“Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing it?” asks Nicole A. Ozer, the director of technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?”

The developer ToyTalk has included a privacy process intended to give parents some control over their children’s personal information. Before a child under 13 can use the conversation feature of the apps, a parent has to give permission and confirm it via email. When children want to interact with a character, they press a microphone button on the app like a walkie-talkie. Parents also have access to their child’s recorded conversations and can, if they choose, delete them.

“If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed,” Angela Campbell, faculty adviser at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said in a statement.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group in Boston, has asked Mattel to shelve the talking doll. The group said the voice recordings amounted to “eavesdropping” and could be used to exploit the intimate feelings of children. “Whatever the child says will be manipulated and used to insinuate these dolls further into girls’ lives,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director.

Mattel said the company was “committed to safety and security” and that Hello Barbie’s technology included “a number of safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can’t be accessed by unauthorized users.”

The doll is expected to hit store shelves in the fall.


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