Barbie Joins The Growing Chorus Of People And Devices Spying On You

Samsung recently took a significant media beating after people actually bothered to read the company’s privacy policy, only to discover that the company’s “smart” TVs were collecting snippets of living room conversation and transmitting them to third parties for analysis. Samsung ultimately issued a blog post stating it was only collecting a limited amount of voice data to improve voice command functionality. Besides, said Samsung, if you don’t want your voice commands collected, you can disable the functionality (even though you lose some core TV features in the process).

Of course, while Samsung got the brunt of the public and media hysteria, many people didn’t seem to realize that nearly everything that takes voice commands (from your home automation system to your iPhone) already engages in this same behavior. Case in point: Mattel is taking more than a little heat for the company’s new “Hello Barbie,” which connects to Wi-Fi, and also records kids’ voice commands and routes them to an external server in order to improve voice command tech. In this video from February, Mattel shows how Barbie now stores your preferences and even provides career advice:

Groups like Campaign For a Commercial-Free Childhood weren’t impressed, and see this as the opening salvo in a disturbing trend in marketing to 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.” That’s exactly what Mattel’s eavesdropping “Hello Barbie” will do if it is released this fall, as planned. But we can stop it!

Kids using “Hello Barbie”‘ won’t only be talking to a doll, they’ll be talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial. It’s creepy—and creates a host of dangers for children and families. Children naturally reveal a lot about themselves when they play. In Mattel’s demo, Barbie asks many questions that encourage kids to share information about their interests, their families, and more—information advertisers can use to market unfairly to children.”

While the CFCC works to keep the toy from store shelves, Mattel is promising that security and privacy has been their top priority while crafting a doll that learns what kids like:

“Mattel and ToyTalk, the San Francisco-based start-up that created the technology used in the doll, say the privacy and security of the technology have been their top priority. “Mattel is committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards,” Mattel said in a statement.”

The problem is, we’ve seen repeatedly how the companies rushing face-first toward the billions in potential revenues from the “Internet of Things” market are so fixated on profit, that security and privacy have been afterthoughts — if a thought at all. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Smart TVs with trivial to non-existent security or easily hacked smart car tech, companies are showing again and again that privacy and security really aren’t paramount. That’s before we even discuss how this collected voice data creates a wonderful new target for nosy governments courtesy of the Third Party Doctrine.

So while some of this hysteria over what’s being collected probably veers into hyperbole territory, the cardboard-grade security and privacy standards most companies are adopting certainly create cause for concern. The good news I suppose: the “smarter” our products get, the bigger the market is for “dumb” products that just sit there and do what they’re supposed to do, whether that’s a television that just displays the damn signal sent to it or utterly insentient dolls that just shut up, smile and drink their fake tea.

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