Big Barbie is Watching You – Meet the WiFi Connected Barbie Doll that Talks to Your Children and Records Them

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 2.04.22 PMEarlier this month, I highlighted the fact that the latest Samsung Smart TV can and will listen to your conversations, and will share the details with a third party in the post: A Very Slippery Slope – Yes, Your Samsung Smart TV Can Listen to Your Private Conversations.

Well a couple of weeks later, and we learn that Mattel’s latest high-tech Barbie doll will bring the “internet of things” right into your child’s playpen. From the The Register:

Toymaker Mattel has unveiled a high-tech Barbie that will listen to your child, record its words, send them over the internet for processing, and talk back to your kid. It will email you, as a parent, highlights of your youngster’s conversations with the toy.

If Samsung’s spying smart TVs creeped you out, this doll may be setting off alarm bells too – so we drilled into what’s going on.

The Hello Barbie doll is developed by San Francisco startup ToyTalk, which says it has more than $31m in funding from Greylock Partners, Charles River Ventures, Khosla Ventures, True Ventures and First Round Capital, and others.

Its Wi-Fi-connected Barbie toy has a microphone, a speaker, a small embedded computer with a battery that lasts about an hour, and Wi-Fi hardware. When you press a button on her belt buckle, Barbie wakes up, asks a question, and turns on its microphone while the switch is held down.

The doll is loaded up with scripts to read, and one of these is selected depending on what the kid said. If the tyke shows an interest in a particular past-time or thing, the doll’s backend software will know to talk about that – giving the kid the impression that chatty Barbie’s a good, listening friend.

Crucially, the recorded audio of children’s voices (and whatever else happens to be going on around them when they push the buckle button) is kept on ToyTalk’s computers. This material is supposed to help Mattel and ToyTalk improve Barb’s scripted replies. It’s also good test data for developing the voice-recognition code.The ToyTalk privacy policy page, dated last April well before Hello Barbie was revealed this week, states:

When users interact with ToyTalk, we may capture photographs or audio or video recordings (the “Recordings”) of such interactions, depending upon the particular application being used.

We may use, transcribe and store such Recordings to provide and maintain the Service, to develop, test or improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, and for other research and development or internal purposes.

We may make such Recordings available to the parent account holder and permit the parent account holder to share such Recordings with third parties.

By using Hello Barbie, parents agree to these terms. It’s not clear how long the recordings stay on ToyTalk’s systems.

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5 Comments

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  1. Well I guess the NSA will be happy. This sounds pretty creepy to me.

  2. Fairly soon, we will only be talking to each other thru secure-encrypted walkie-talkies ….. aka the “cone of silence” of “Get Smart” fame.

  3. well this sounds creepy I might have to pass and not buy this one

  4. Look on the bright side: If it’s determined the recordings are being used for surveillance at some point, it would be a great way to introduce misdirection through planted conversations.

    I think the aspect of misdirection has generally been overlooked by many concerned about spying. If you know your smartphone is sending your location and you ever need to “slip the noose” just have someone borrow it when you need to be somewhere else. Same goes for credit card purchases, etc. While most lament it is frightening to be monitored like that, it also provides a wonderful way to introduce misdirection through purposeful buying of items that suggest a false conclusion you want them to have.

    Every technology, every strategy has inherent shortcomings or compensatory weaknesses that can be used to advantage. Once surveillance becomes tainted through misdirection, it even works to your advantage when you’re not using it. By second guessing the accuracy of the intelligence they’re gathering, you have made the bastard’s jobs harder. Randomly feeding false, true, mixed and unrelated information is an effective way to reshuffle the balance of power.

    We’re not without defenses. We just need to use them.

  5. Waiting for a report of these Barbie dolls to start appearing on porn sets…

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