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Backdoor Barbie: Let’s Go Party

Posted by on November 2, 2015.

John Zorabedian tells us via the Sophos Naked Security blog how a “Hell No Barbie” social media campaign targets Mattel’s talking toy: yes, Barbie is in trouble again, though at least she isn’t spreading viruses this time. It could certainly be said that she’s still failing as a role model, though. At any rate, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is worried enough by Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the doll with an embedded microphone intended to transmit what the child who owns it says to cloud-hosted voice recognition software.

The CCFC article articulates concerns that analysis of the child’s conversations will be used to elicit information about the child’s interests and family, and that play will be driven by Mattel rather than the child. Mattel’s policy on the data it collects, including audio data, is stated here and much is made of its limited nature. According to an article in The Register dating back to the announcement of the Pink Fink, Big Blue are moving in a similar direction with a Green Dinosaur. (This is starting to look like a Rainbow Coalition with overtones of Zippy and Bungle.)

It may not have escaped your notice that this is the (probably inevitable) next step from furry devices like Teddy Ruxpin and Furby, which only played back pre-recorded material and had no recording capability. It’s a big step, though. I have no grounds (apart from nearly seven decades of scepticism and downright cynicism) for disbelieving Mattel’s assurances that children will not be bombarded with advertising, but the acceptance of this level of ‘eavesdropping’ with the potential for conversational data to be transmitted far beyond the walls of home and reviewed by outsiders has ‘interesting’ and disconcerting implications, despite Mattel’s own safeguards. Other parties may be less scrupulous.

There’s no word yet on whether NSA staff will be banned from bringing their Barbies to the office.

David Harley

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