Goodbye, Barbie?

Barbara Millicent Roberts, the world’s most professionally accredited and eclectically attired public figure, has been called many things in her 56 years of existence. Fake. Plastic. Too skinny. Too inept. Too toxic (literally). Even too tattooed. But surely the most hurtful comments for Barbie, as consumers across the world have come to know her, are suggestions that her plans for “eavesdropping” the conversations of millions  of chattering children have left her seeming just a little bit “creepy”.

In case you missed it, at the recent North American International Toy Fair in New York, Mattel introduced their new all-talking, all-listening WiFi-connected doll for the digital age: “Hello Barbie”. Not one to miss a good party, Hello Barbie is in keeping with a recent surge in interest for voice-activated functionality on mobile phones, televisions and games consoles, being billed as the world’s first “interactive doll”. As a Mattel spokeswoman was quoted by the BBC:

“The number one request we hear from girls around the world is that they want to have a conversation with Barbie. Now, for the first time ever, Barbie can have a two-way conversation.”

Sharing a number of similarities with Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now digital assistants, the latest Barbie features speech-recognition technology from US start-up, ToyTalk to facilitate the illusion of “conversation”. The doll features a microphone that records the child’s speech, using its WiFi connection to then upload it to the cloud, analyse it through looking at complex natural language patterns, and then finally convert it into a context-relevant response that is relayed back to the child.

Perhaps understandably, the way in which Mattel and ToyTalk propose storing and using the data collected has prodded and provoked privacy experts and groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), who have registered a range of privacy concerns. Summoning privacy debates previously discussed on this very blog about Samsung TVs and Apple’s Smart Watches, the CCFC have gone as far as attempting to prevent the doll reaching market.

A core concern is how the data collected will subsequently be stored and used. According to reports from The Guardian, parents must sign various privacy policies before their child uses the interactive function, and all recorded audio will be encrypted before being uploaded to the cloud-based server. Furthermore, Mattel and ToyTalk insist that data will not be used for marketing purposes, and will be shared only with third parties assisting with the provision of speech recognition. The big question is, however, is this enough?

From the information we have available at present, the answer should be a resounding no.

Hello Barbie raises a myriad of issues, ranging from the surveillance of a vulnerable population unable to fully understand how their behaviour is being monitored, to a duty of care on the part of the manufacturers that will be almost impossible to uphold. What if, for instance, a child confides in her Hello Barbie about domestic abuse within his or her family home? Or comes to treat the doll as his or her primary source of advice? In many ways, Hello Barbie may simply further propagate Sherry Turkle’s concerns for the role of technology in modern day life, with people coming to rely more upon the technologies around them than the people in their life.

This is also not to mention the potential for successful hacking attempts, as illustrated in the recent case of Vivid Toys’ “Cayla” doll, which featured a vulnerability that enabled her responses to be hijacked. As the Sony Pictures hacking debacle that followed the release of the controversial film, The Interview, starkly illustrated, even the most widely recognised and powerful corporations can suffer profound breaches of security and violations of consumer privacy. Mattel should take note.

The story also touches upon the hot topic of data ownership. In recent years, researchers (including those based here in Horizon) have been exploring how users can be afforded greater control over the data that they share online. Whether through the Hub of All Things (HAT), or the concept of “personal containers“, these perspectives seek to help users exploit the value of their data, rather than passively enabling third-parties to do so without offering satisfactory recompense.

That children should wish for a doll that listens and talks back to them is entirely understandable. As a child, I had both high expectations and hopes for my toys: Subbuteo players that would stop snapping their legs. Play-Doh that would never dry out as the result of inevitably losing the lid to its pot. A Captain Planet ring that would genuinely enable me to summon nature’s most powerful forces in a bid to defeat the crushing rise of global capitalism and environmental destruction.

But as most of us have come to realise, children (usually) don’t know best. Not only was the quality of my childhood unaffected by the unfulfilled status of my whims, but my right to privacy was never violated before I even had the chance to understand what this might mean.

So, I’m sorry, Hello Barbie, but I think for now you’re best left on the shelf.


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