Shhh, your dolls are listening

You’ve all watched at least one TV show where a computer expert helps police save the world by remotely accessing some sort of video and/or audio device. Conveniently, these lifesaving spy-type contraptions are almost always located in the precise spot where the bad guys committed their dastardly deed du jour. Therefore, in the blink of eye and the strokes of a dozen or so keys, detectives are able to apprehend the evil-doers, close the case, and settle in for a few drinks at the local cop bar where they compare stories and hook up with their one-night-only soulmates. All of this within 40 minutes, give or take a commercial or two.

In real life, of course, those “eyes and ears” used by TV cops are rarely where they’re needed. Or, if officers are lucky enough to run across a camera in the area where a crime took place, there’s a good chance the owner hasn’t switched it on within the past five years.

Is it legal, though, to place cameras on every light pole and roof top in the country? Is it okay that police have access to the recordings? Sure it’s legal, but are they really out there watching and recording nearly every move you make? Well, take a peek at the array of cameras on the roof top of Walmart on your next visit. See, you can no longer fib about shopping there because they have you on tape from a variety of angles.

Video recordings in public places are perfectly legal as long as they’re done in places where the person(s) recorded has no expectation of privacy, such as a Walmart parking lot. Audio recordings, however, are a different story. And the laws governing those recordings are clear. For example, some states allow audio recordings as long as one person in the room has knowledge of the recordings (one-party consent). Other states require that all parties be aware that their conversations are being recorded ( two-party/all-party consent).

So how does Barbie, the popular kid’s toy, fit into all this? Well, there’s a new doll in town and she’s called Hello Barbie.

Hello Barbie is a WiFi enabled toy equipped with both microphone and speaker, and she’s designed to verbally interact with children. The concept is simple, yet a bit elaborate. A child activates the unique feature by pressing a button on the doll. Then, as Barbie listens to the child speak, the little one’s voice is transmitted to Mattel (Barbie’s maker) where a response is electronically devised and transmitted back to Barbie who recites it to the child. In other words, these artificially intelligent dolls are able to carry on conversation with children, conversations that are stored in the depths of cyber-Barbieland. The company says they store the information to help Barbies learn and form better responses to their owners.

Child – “I like snow.”

Barbie. “Snow is nice. But it’s so cold.”

This sounds fine and dandy until we step back and think for a minute. Suppose Sally Sue switches on Eavesdropping Barbie while she’s in the room with her parents. Barbie immediately begins transmitting the adults’ conversation to Mattel. What if Sally Sue tells Sneaky Barbie her deepest and darkest secrets? What if Barbie records Sally Sue’s parents discussing their criminal activity?

What if a child tells Barbie that Daddy touches her private places after mommy goes to sleep? How will Barbie respond? Is this a dangerous and slippery legal and psychological slope? Or, is Hello Barbie just another toy that should not be a concern to people and their privacy?

Here’s another point to ponder. Creepy Barbie remembers everything someone says to her. Suppose for a moment that she goes rogue and orders all the toys in the house to rise up and… Okay, I’ve gone too far. Sorry.

Anyway, what do you think? Has Mattel stepped out of bounds on this one?

Are Big Barbie’s capabilities a violation of privacy laws? Is there cause for concern? Do you care one way or another?

Should the recordings be stored by the toy maker? Should the government be allowed access to those recordings in the event of a criminal investigation involving the child’s parents or others in the home?

So many questions and, well, I guess we could turn to Hello Barbie for answers…right?