Mattel, the toy company behind the iconic children’s doll, announced the launch of the new Hello Barbie, which will be able to hold two-way conversations, play games and tell jokes, earlier this year.
However the concept quickly came under fire from critics who claim the doll’s ability to record potentially-sensitive information could be incredibly damaging for children.
‘Imagine your children playing with a Wi-Fi connected doll that records their conversations – and then transmits them to a corporation which analyzes every word to learn “all of [the child’s] likes and dislikes”,’ the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) wrote on its website.
That’s exactly what Mattel’s eavesdropping Hello Barbie will do if it is released this fall, as planned. But we can stop it!’
It added: ‘When Mattel releases the toy in late fall, things will get seriously creepy.’
According to Mattel, the soon-to-be-released doll, which was created in collaboration with US-based start-up Toy Talk, will not only be able to talk to children, but also take on board and understand what they say, enabling it to interact with the child on a personal level.
For example, if a child mentions a particular hobby or interest, the Hello Barbie can store this information and bring it up again during future conversations.
The doll, which will retail for $74.99 when it eventually hits shelves, will however need to be connected to WiFi in order for these features to work.
And at the time of its launch back in February, its creators insisted that every effort had been made to ensure that the information captured by the doll would remain totally safe.
‘Barbie is online and talks directly to the ToyTalk servers,’ Martin Reddy, co-founder and chief technical officer at ToyTalk, added to ABC News during a demonstration of the doll’s abilities.
‘Our artificial intelligence engine is running with the content of what Barbie can say. That AI engine’s job is to decide what is best to say back. All of the logic, behaviour, content is on the servers.’
Mr Reddy added that the company has taken steps to ensure that all of the information stored on the servers remains completely private – insisting that the brand is well aware that some parents might be concerned about the idea of their children playing with an internet-connected toy.
‘It is a very legitimate concern and one we are very concerned about as well,’ he said, before explaining that ToyTalk has ‘several apps in market’ to safeguard against any online dangers – as well as having settings in place that will enable a parent to watch over all of the information which is stored by the company’s servers.
‘We have made sure we have built a solution that is COPPA [Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act] compliant and approved by Kid Safe, an independent organization,’ he explained.
‘Anything we capture is stored securely and we provide full access to the parents to that information as well. They can review what is there [and] delete anything they don’t like.’
However, the CCFC, which aims to ‘support parents’ efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing’, insists that the safety measures put in place by Mattel are not enough to ensure the sensitive information stored on its servers will remain secure.
It states: ‘The companies say that they will obtain parental permission to capture a child’s voice, but that won’t necessarily protect children from exploitation.’
And according to Georgetown University Law Professor Angela Campbell, Faculty Advisor to the school’s Center on Privacy and Technology, there is nothing within Mattel’s guidelines which would prevent the company from using the information gleaned by the doll in order to market additional products to children.
‘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,’ Ms Campbell told the CCFC.
‘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.’
Hello Barbie is currently set to be available in stores towards the end of the year – just in time for Christmas.
‘The number one request we hear from girls around the world is that they want to have a conversation with Barbie,’ a spokeswoman for Mattel said while showcasing a prototype version of the doll at the New York Toy Fair.
‘Now, for the first time ever, Barbie can have a two-way conversation.’