Parents: Be careful what your kids wish for

A few weeks ago, Samsung was universally condemned for collecting ambient conversations through their new voice recognition Smart TV. Yet the new Hello Barbie is much worse.

Integrating natural language processing technology from ToyTalk, Mattel’s high tech update to the iconic doll is said to converse with children, will get to learn voices, and will adapt the conversation in an intelligent way.

The companies say that of all the wishes they have had for Barbie, children have longed to talk to her. So now they can, the question is, at what cost?

Mario Aguilar writing in Gizmodo considers that “voice recognition technology in Hello Barbie is pretty innocuous” because he takes Mattel’s word for it that they won’t use conversations they collect from kids for marketing. And he accepts ToyTalk’s “statement” (which it seems has not been made public) that “Mattel will only use the conversations recorded through Hello Barbie to operate and improve our products, to develop better speech recognition for children, and to improve the natural language processing of children’s speech.”

Come on! That’s the usual boilerplate that companies use to reserve their right to do anything they like with personal information. The companies’ soothing statements need to be critically challenged. Aguilar admits “data is an advertising goldmine”. So, what will Mattel and ToyTalk do to restrain their re-use of personal information about children? What do they do with the extracted transcripts of what the children say? Where is the personal information being sent, and how is it stored? When will Mattel update its Privacy Policy to cover Hello Barbie? Is the ToyTalk statement mentioned by Aguilar publicly available?

It’s bad enough that Samsung seems to expect Smart TV buyers will study a lengthy technical privacy statement, but do we really think it’s reasonable for parents to make informed consent decisions around the usage of personal information collected from a doll?

Talk about childhood’s loss of innocence.