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Et tu, Barbie?

Et Tu, Barbie?

Et Tu, Barbie?

New toy raises privacy concerns

Irina Raicu

In a smart city, in a smart house, a little girl got a new Barbie. Her parents, who had enough money to afford a rather pricey doll, explained to the girl that the new Barbie could talk—could actually have a conversation with the girl. Sometime later, alone in her room with her toys, the little girl, as instructed, pushed on the doll’s belt buckle and started talking. After a few minutes, she wondered what Barbie would answer if she said something mean—so she tried that.

Later, the girl’s mother accessed the app that came with the new doll and listened to her daughter’s conversation. The mom then went to the girl’s room and asked her why she had been mean to Barbie. The little girl learned something—about talking, about playing, about technology, about her parents.

Or maybe I should have written all of the above using future tense—because “Hello Barbie,” according to media reports, does not hit the stores until next month.

After reading several articles about “Hello Barbie,” I decided to ask several folks here at the university for their reactions to this new high-tech toy. (I read, think, and write all the time about privacy, so I wanted some feedback from folks who mostly think about other stuff.) Mind you, the article I’d sent them as an introduction was titled “Will Barbie Be Hackers’ New Plaything?”—so I realize it wasn’t exactly a neutral way to start the conversation. With that caveat, though, here is a sample of the various concerns that my colleagues expressed.

The first reaction came via email: “There is a sci-fi thriller in there somewhere…” (Thriller, yes, I thought to myself, though not sci-fi anymore.)

The other concerns came in person. From a parent of grown kids: the observation that these days parents seem to want to know absolutely everything about their children, and that that couldn’t be healthy for either the parents or the kids. From a dad of a 3-year girl: “My daughter already loves Siri; if I gave her this she would stop talking to anybody else!” From a woman thinking back: “I used to have to talk for my doll, too…” The concerns echoed those raised in much of the media coverage of Hello Barbie—that she will stifle the imagination that kids deploy when they have to provide both sides of a conversation with their toys, or that she will violate whatever privacy children still have.

But I was particularly struck by a paragraph in a Mashable article that described in more detail how the new doll/app combo will work:

"When a parent goes through the process of setting up Hello Barbie via the app, it's possible to control the settings and manually approve or delete potential conversation topics. For example, if a child doesn’t celebrate certain holidays like Christmas, a parent can chose to remove certain lines from Barbie's repertoire."

Is the question underlying all of this, really, one of control? Who will ultimately control Hello Barbie? Will it be Mattel? Will it be ToyTalk, the San Francisco company providing the “consumer-grade artificial intelligence” that enables Hello Barbie’s conversations? The parents who buy the doll? The hackers who might break in? The courts that might subpoena the recordings of the children’s chats with the doll?

And when do children get to exercise control? When and how do they get to develop autonomy if even well intentioned people (hey, corporations are people, too, now) listen in to—and control—even the conversations that the kids are having when they play, thinking they’re alone? (“…Toy Talk says that parents will have ‘full control over all account information and content,’ including sharing recordings on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter,” notes an ABC News article; “data is sent to and from ToyTalk’s servers, where conversations are stored for two years from the time a child last interacted with the doll or a parent accessed a ToyTalk account,” points out the San Francisco Chronicle.)

What do kids learn when they realize that those conversations they thought were private were actually being recorded, played back, and shared with either business’ partners or parents’ friends? All I can hope is that the little girls who will receive Hello Barbie will, as a result, grow up to be privacy activists—or, better yet, tech developers and designers who will understand, deeply, the importance of privacy by design.

October 14, 2015

Photo by Mike Licht, used without modification under a Creative Commons license. 

Oct 14, 2015

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