“Hello Barbie” Talking Doll to hit Store Shelves This Fall

Step aside, Barbie, because “Hello Barbie”, a high-tech talking doll, will be hitting store shelves this fall. Mattel, Inc., which produces the popular toy brand for children, announced the new product last week, raising privacy concerns associated with the doll’s ability to record conversations.

One group, The Campaign for a Commercial free Childhood (CCFC) has recently organized an online petition calling on Mattel’s CEO, Christopher Sinclair to shut down production of Hello Barbie.

“Children have a tendency to have particularly intimate conversations with dolls and stuffed animals,”Josh Golin, Associate Director of CCFC, told TechNewsWorld. “They confide in them and reveal things about themselves in a way that kids are much less likely to do if playing with an app.” Hello Barbie will be eavesdropping on children’s personal and private conversations more so than with talking apps,” Golin added.

The petition so far has racked up more than 5,400 signatures since it was posted online, exceeding its 2000 goal. The CCFC expects to get even more signatures and hopes that Mattel will come to realize that high-tech Barbies will only cause more harm than good for their company.

The voice recognition software used in the Talking Barbie was created by ToyTalk, a privately owned San Francisco entertainment company, founded in 2011 by Disney Pixar veterans Oren Jacob and Martin Reddy. According to Oren Jacob, the company’s CEO, “The data is never used for anything to do with marketing or publicity or any of that stuff, not at all.” ToyTalk also states that parents can access and monitor their children’s recordings as well.

“The number one request we receive from girls globally is to have a conversation with Barbie, and with Hello Barbie, we are making that request a reality,” according to Stephanie Cota, Mattel’s Senior Vice President of Global Communications.

When a child uses Hello Barbie, he or she will press a button on Barbie’s belt buckle and speak directly into a microphone, which will be conveniently located in Barbie’s necklace. The messages recorded by the doll are transmitted to ToyTalk via a wi-fi connection, where appropriate responses are composed and sent back to the doll so that Barbie will be able to answer children’s messages.

“Hello Barbie can only hear what a child says when the child asks us to by pressing the microphone button–similar to how a walkie-talkie works,” a spokesperson from ToyTalk explained. The data collected from the toys will be used, according to the company to “improve our products, to develop better speech recognition for children, and to improve the natural language processing of children’s speech.”

Responding to concerns about the talking doll, Mattel has assured parents that any data collected from Hello Barbie, will require a password to gain access to sensitive information. “Mattel has been very careful to note that parents will be told clearly which data will be collected and you need a password to be able to access that information,”says Julianne Pepitone, a Tech Editor for NBC News.

Nevertheless, Pepitone states that, even though other interactive toys (besides Hello Barbie) are keeping up with the times by upgrading to the latest bluetooth technology, there is still some sort of risk by going high-tech. “As soon as you have information that’s being shared, there is a potential security issue there,” Pepitone said. This is why many computer experts advise parents to protect this new high-tech doll, like they typically would with electronics such as smart phones and computers.

Angela Campbell, a faculty advisor from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology said in a statement, “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.”

“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,” Campbell added.

MoneyTalksNews insists that Hello Barbie is a creepy doll and it will only create a host of problems for both parents and their children. Furthermore, ToyTalk’s privacy policies have many parents worried. One of ToyTalk’s policies’ states that by using any of their products or services, consumers are giving the company permission to collect and disclose any form of personal information. ToyTalk also collects other sensitive data such as photographs, audio, video, in addition to personal and demographic information. (Click HERE to  see the company’s privacy policies.)

“ToyTalk and Mattel are committed to clearly and directly communicating with parents about all the planned uses of data,” ToyTalk’s spokesperson said. “We only ask consent to use data to improve our products, build better speech recognition, and natural language processing for children’s speech…that’s it.”

At the moment, Mattel intends to go ahead with production of Hello Barbie. Hello Barbie will cost approximately $75 and is slated to show up on store shelves sometime in the fall… unless of course, the CCFC petition causes them to rethink their intentions.

Software security experts concur that there is a serious risk to families that own Hello Barbies. The dolls could be turned on remotely to gather information about the parents, as well as the children, which should give potential purchasers of the product some serious second thoughts of their own. Interestingly, a recent episode of the new CBS series CSI Cypher revolved around a gang of kidnappers that used a particular brand of baby monitors to facilitate their kidnapping activities.


Photo Credit: Mattel, Inc.

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