back to article Mattel urged to scrap Wi-Fi mic Barbie after Register investigation

Privacy activists are urging Mattel to axe its Hello Barbie doll, which sends recordings of children's voices across the internet for voice-recognition analysis. The improbably proportioned doll is fitted with a small embedded computer, a microphone, a speaker and a Wi-Fi interface. When the toy's belt buckle is pressed, …

  1. Mark 85 Silver badge

    I really have a hard time believing that any half-way intelligent and caring parent would buy their kid one of these. There's just too much room for abuse by outsiders (MITM or advertising).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Too bad it only has a small amount of pre-programmed phrases, this would be a fun hack.

      1. sqlrob
        Holmes

        Question is how secure is the protocol. It may still be possible to hack and be pretty flexible.

    2. Jordan Davenport

      "I really have a hard time believing that any half-way intelligent and caring parent would buy their kid one of these."

      So expect the majority of girls targeted-market children in the US to own one by this time 2017?

    3. BillG Silver badge
      Pirate

      Mattel's servers don't hold the conversations Hello Barbie records, ToyTalk does, and the startup has stated explicitly that the audio will never be used for advertising purposes.

      ...adding, "We're a startup company, we don't need the millions and millions that advertising to children will bring us. Trust us, suckers! Muahahahaha!"

      1. Hollerith 1

        Indeed...

        It's using the recordings for research purposes: voice recognition of and for children. A nice cheap way of getting data.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Indeed...

          "research purposes: voice recognition"

          Hmmm. How about buying one for the daughter of a Welsh speaking family?

    4. razorfishsl

      You are kidding right?

      Yesterday I saw a mother give a Cert 1 video game to her kid to play on the train whilst she played candy crunch.

  2. RAMChYLD

    So....

    You let your kids use Siri, but you raise a fuss at this?

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: So....

      You assume that these kids are all Fanbois/fangirls then?

      What about those poor Android and Windows phone children? Cortana will be most displeased at your comment.

      won't someone think of the 'poor' {sic} non iDevice using children...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So....

      There's a contextual difference. SIRI answers questions and doesn't engage in 'conversations' that would lead the child to reveal explicit and private personal data (mostly, not 100%) whereas the Barbie doll is primarily geared up to achieve that very thing!

    3. Mage Silver badge
      WTF?

      Re: So....

      I wouldn't let any child use Siri, Cortana or similar.

      1. LionelB

        Re: So....

        Oh, I don't know... have great fun with my kid trying to make Siri (iPad) and Cortana (phone) "talk" to one another. Hilarious (but surprisingly tricky to get right) - try it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: So....

          So it's "Parry meets Eliza" one more time then?

          https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc439

  3. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge
    Black Helicopters

    Oh what can we say...

    For those who are conspiracy nuts: Blame the NSA, CIA as a way to spy on everyone.

    But that's not all.

    When the parents away, they could use Big Data to get more information on the children and families and then brainwash the kids by having Barbi talk to them in their sleep.

    1. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

      Re: Oh what can we say...

      "Kill all Humans!"

      1. Swarthy Silver badge

        Re: Oh what can we say...

        I always do what Teddy tells me.

  4. frank ly Silver badge

    Reducing development costs

    "The SF upstart says it has its eyes on a larger prize: developing an accurate voice recognition system for children."

    So, they targeted a group of children who are almost guarenteed to be all girls and get the voice samples for free instead of paying people to bring their children in to make recordings of conversations in controlled and guided situations.

    1. MrDamage

      Re: Reducing development costs

      From a technical standpoint, it does have one advantage over the controlled and guided situations.

      That is that voice recognition will get better at recognising particular accents, abbreviations, rambles, and other things we tend to say day-to-day, but would be less likely to say in a lab environment.

      It would mean an end to things like;

      Me: Siri, where can I buy a roll of linoleum?

      Siri: I'm sorry, did you want to buy a roman, and only one?*

      *Apologies to Billy Connolly for stealing one of his older gags.

  5. corestore

    Larry Niven...

    ...got there long ago. Louis Wu:

    "...The children! Protect the children! Where are the children?...The Playmate program. It guards them and teaches them and plays with them. They'll be fine..."

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Up

      Re: Larry Niven...

      Wonderful, wonderful auto-doc.

    2. Graham Marsden

      Re: Larry Niven...

      As did Harry Harrison:

      I Always Do What Teddy Says

  6. PhilipN Silver badge

    "..the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another ..."

    Huh? My parents were from the first half of the 20th Century. Can someone please explain WTF this guy is talking about.

    1. Captain DaFt

      Re: "..the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another ..."

      "Can someone please explain WTF this guy is talking about."

      Soothing psycho-babble to lull you into a (false) sense of security and trust with their product.

      Advertisers pay the big bucks to get their spiels and press releases tweaked just right to enhance consumer credulity.

    2. Dan 55 Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: "..the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another ..."

      Nuanced responsiveness and being a caring person is when you don't feed them gruel or thrash them to within an inch of their life to shut them up like our parents did to us but stick them in front of the telly or give them the tablet.

      Am I doing this parenting thing right?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "her doll"

    HER DOLL?

    That's a bit sexist isn't it?

    [said with a very gruff voice]

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "her doll"

      My daughter loved her Barbie. But she hated (and still does) everything pink. Any relative who dared buy her or her doll anything with pink in it was in for a rough time.

      When we lived in the US during her 'barbie' period she was branded as strange by the other childern of her age. Hers was the only Barbie in biker Clothes... (made by yours truly)

      Like her parents she rides a motorcycle (a Ducatti 995). Her girls have grown up with a Meh attitude to Pink.

      Marketing departments should be lined up against a wall and sprayed pink until they promise not to do it again.

    2. Graham Marsden
      WTF?

      You let your *son* play with dolls?

      Yes, I expect him to grow up to be a parent...!

      1. Tom 13
        Trollface

        Re: You let your *son* play with dolls?

        Girls play with dolls. Boys play with action figures. Sheesh, you people should keep up with your own language.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "her doll"

      Yeah ... errr, am I the only heterosexual adult male who has a tiny interest in owning one of these just for the tech? Quite possibly. ;-)

      Nonetheless the remote server could end up with more than just the usual 'Do I look cool in this headband Barbie?' type speech.

  8. tempemeaty
    Big Brother

    To Creepy!

    No matter what the corporation, it seems like every executive out there has the same goals now...more surveillance.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Come On Barbie...

    ... Let's Go Stasi.

  10. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
    Terminator

    Barbie?

    Chucky, more like.

  11. Ian Emery Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    WHY??

    Barbie doesnt need to give an intelligent answer; I mean who REALLY pays attention to what someone is actually saying if they are a pretty blonde with big t1ts???

    PAris, cos there are rumours she cant count beyond 10 without taking her shoes and socks off.

    1. Hans 1 Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: WHY??

      I heard she had trouble counting to 6 ...

      PH[looking for her second hand]: Where has it gone, oh, in that guyz pants ... may I have my hand back, I'm doing some serious maff here. (typo intended)

    2. Hollerith 1

      Re: WHY??

      Given that this is supposed to be a 'friend' to little girls, and they are who will be paying attention, I guess these little girls should ignore the voice and go for the breasts? Or did you not realise that some of the commentards you are addressing were female? But when I see quiptard posts such as this, I think 'another chap who has difficulties with the laydeez.'

      A nice little ad hominem attack and I feel better!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: WHY??

        > I guess these little girls should ignore the voice and go for the breasts? Or did you not realise that some of the commentards you are addressing were female?

        So now lesbians don't exist? What an assumption! How sexist!

        > But when I see quiptard posts such as this, I think 'another chap who has difficulties with the laydeez.'

        Ditto, re your response!

        :-p

  12. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Crazy!

    Has the entire world gone stark, staring mad?

    1. beep54
      Joke

      Re: Crazy!

      Dear Will:

      I truly am sorry that you have apparently not been paying attention. Do try to keep up.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Crazy!

      'Tony' Stark, staring mad in this case.

  13. Fihart

    Because we can !!

    Egregious example of wifi being used irresponsibly.

    I'd equally condemn ISPs for handing out wireless routers like candy. I've seen installations where wireless was used within inches of a desktop computer -- a simple ethernet cable would be faster and not interfere with those who actually need a wireless link.

    And so many routers end up in landfill as users move flat or change ISP.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    WTF?

    So who is:

    Munin‮?repeeK eroL

    Should I be amazed it's been retweeted a whole 3 times.

    Other than padding why is it in the article?

  15. This post has been deleted by its author

    1. A Twig

      I dunno, I saw an advert for an awesome MicroMachines military base on TV when I was a kid that I didn't even know existed. I talked about it with my parents, and some pocket money saving combined with a few relatives chipping in for Christmas meant I got it a few months later, and for me it was the best toy ever! Pretty sure I still have it in the loft.

      I used to fight huge pitched battles on the living room floor, using a blanket with books under etc to create hills/valley. In short, it gave me a huge amount of fun, with total play time probably measured in weeks and gave me opportunities to exercise my imagination to come up with ways to incorporate it into different scenarios.

      If I hadn't ever seen that advert as a ~8 year old, that's a whole load of very happy memories that I wouldn't have had.

      I guess the difference though was that the advert (20 something years ago) wasn't very sophisticated, no CGI or funky graphics and clearly showed children playing with the toy so it was clear what it was and what its capabilities were.

  16. Tascam Holiday
    WTF?

    In two minds about this...

    The thought of my kids having one of these is very worrying, but if they're not silly money I'll definitely buy one for hacking purposes!

    1. MrXavia

      Re: In two minds about this...

      This makes it temping to buy a few action men and cyborgize them for my sons......

      1. Little Mouse

        Re: In two minds about this...

        Heh heh heh - You're terrible Muriel MrXavia.

  17. Clown Shoes

    Think of the (other) children!

    When I was a kid my little sister had a doll with a cassette player in it and a mouth that moved so it could tell stories and sing songs. It didn't take long before me and my brother popped a Guns n Roses tape in and had it singing welcome to the jungle.

    I'd love to know just how much of Mattel's server time was spent on teenage boys trying to get Barbie to say something a bit rude.

  18. rav

    Hmmm... How about a gun that alks to it's shooter?

    Or how about a WIFI connect beer bottle to talk you out of fallng off the wagon?

    These are "conscience" products. Since we have stopped listening to people maybe we'll listen to products.

    What happens when the beer bottle becomes a nag?

    1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Hmmm... How about a gun that alks to it's shooter?

      I'm happy with a talking bottle, but I prefer Alice's version

      Pint, natch.

  19. rav

    WFIF Barbie or How to entrap parents with their kid's chat's to their dollie.

    The Real reason Mattel is releasing WIFI Barbie is to entrap parents and others who might be abusing their children, or saying or doing things that their children would not normally reveal. Of course little Janie will tell her Barbie anything.

    That's the kicker though, who knows what your kid will say?

    While protecting children is a noble undertaking, somehow this whole marketing idea is just plain repugnant.

  20. Simon Harris Silver badge
    Coat

    responses picked by the backend software.

    Does that mean Barbie talks out of her arse?

  21. Mister_C
    Facepalm

    Online petitions...

    "So far the group has collected 1,738 signatures for its petition"

    And Clarkson's petition has been signed by half the planet.

    <sigh>

  22. johno

    Talking dolls already hacked

    Talking dolls like this have already been hacked so why should this one be any different.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31059893

  23. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Talking Barbie: from your child's lips to the NSA's ears.

  24. JaitcH
    FAIL

    Voice-recognition analysis ... that's what HSBC has on it's Customer Service Lines

    HSBC has voice-recognition analysis software strapped across many of it's service lines - they don't tell you exactly that they are using it.

    I've been having great fun with it. If you have music playing in the background it messes up and the Squaddie from Sri Lanka, Mumbai, Manila or one of hundreds of sweatshop cubicles asks you turn the music down.

    A steady tone also blocks HSBC voice snooping. One Squaddie got exasperated so I asked him what his problem was and he then told me about their system.

    On another occasion I used voice-changing software and a spectrum analyser to determine my vocal sound characteristics which were then used so my long suffering personal assistant, using the voice changer, could emulate me.

    We called the help line, and sure enough the software was happy. During the call I slowly faded from the emulated sound to her own voice and only afyer 3 or 4 minutes of female conversation did he figure she was not me!

    So much for high tech HSBC.

  25. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Big Brother

    A start up?

    Despite their apparently laudable protection and safe use of collected data, it's start ups like this that the likes of Google tend to buy up. What protection will the data have then?

    On another note, we all remember the occasional news stories of Boots, Kodak and other photo processors reporting "suspect" images to the police. Will anyone at ToyTalk actually be listening to any of this to confirm the speech recognition success rate? What will they do if they hear "suspect" comments from a child to their "friend"?

  26. dorsetknob
    Trollface

    Latest News Update

    Mattell just announced in its latest press release that it was withdrawing its Hello Barbie doll, which sends recordings of children's voices across the internet for voice-recognition analysis

    It Updated its press release with the following Statement

    " In Conjunction with Intel Marketing and Development Department We will be upgrading all Hello Barbie doll's

    with their Latest Soc Processor and We will Re-Release this Doll under the New Brand "" Hello Gwendy ""

  27. This post has been deleted by its author

  28. Bob Dole (tm)

    Freedom vs ...

    Let's say that a child starts telling the doll about abuse. Does the company which recorded the conversation now have a legal responsibility to report it?

    If so, would the government have a de facto right to then "monitor" all such recordings?

    I'd call that a slippery slope but, really, it's just all straight down. There is no slope.

  29. Digital Jedi

    So...does this mean your kids aren't allowed to use Siri...or Teddy Ruxpin?

  30. joekelly3

    The activists don't need to read it again; they already had it right

    If you look at CCFC's material, you will see that they do not claim that the recording are stored on *Mattel's* computers. And I quote from http://commercialfreechildhood.org/action/shut-down-hello-barbie:

    "Hello Barbie" transmits the recordings over the Internet to cloud servers. Mattel’s technology

    partner ToyTalk processes the audio with voice-recognition software.

    That said, whether they are stored on Mattel or Toy Talk servers is a distinction without a difference. As for Toy Talk stating "explicitly that the audio will never be used for advertising purposes," that assertion is worth the non-paper it's printed on.

    Meeting or exceeding COPPA is another red herring, since COPPA only prohibits collection of PII; it says NOTHING about capturing the conversations of children...and anyone else near the the microphone implanted in "Stasi Barbie" (credit to Germany's Stern newsmagazine).

  31. martinusher Silver badge

    Intimate Thoughts?

    Children of Barbie owning age don't have 'intimate thoughts'. They think like children. A lot of their ideas about the world, how it works, relationships and all that are immature but that's the point of being a child -- you're learning. (....and you should be doing most of this from your parents....that's what they're there for).

    I don't think this would make a nice toy for a child but I don't see it as quite the menace its made out to be. (The way people are reacting to this you'd think it was sending subliminal "Kill Your Parents" messages to the child.) I've never been a great one for giving girls dolls -- they exist but my daughter was much more interested in practical things at that age and I don't think she was atypical. (Boys tend to be more interested in what happens when you microwave Barbie...so the idea of 'playing' with one has a different meaning for that gender).

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