Barbie can’t keep a secret: Toys cause privacy concerns By Todd M. Rowe

21/03/2015 04:15

In recent posts we have discussed the “Internet of Things” which is used to describe how physical objects around us are increasingly becoming wired to the internet. For example, our prior posts have addressed “smart household appliances,” “smart vehicles” and even Apple’s new “smart watch.”

Privacy concerns are now growing over Mattel’s new Barbie, “Hello Barbie,” which contains an embedded microphone in the doll’s belt to record a child’s response to the doll’s questions. The child’s responses are sent back to Mattel through the doll’s WiFi capabilities. Mattel claims the voice-recognition software and recording capabilities will allow the doll to learn to respond to the child’s statements and even learn the family dog’s name or other topics the child enjoys discussing.

In explaining the doll’s capabilities, Mattel Senior Vice President of Global Communications stated, “[t]he number one request we receive from girls globally is to have a conversation with Barbie, and with Hello Barbie we are making that request a reality.”

As seen with other products contributing to the Internet of Things, Hello Barbie and other “smart toys” are creating privacy concerns. For example, the Washington Post quotes Angela Campbell from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology: “If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed.”

Further, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has started a petition to stop Mattel from releasing Hello Barbie. Despite these concerns, Hello Barbie is still planned for release this fall and will cost $74.99.

The privacy concerns related to toys that are part of the “Internet of Things” may be put further into context by reports(PDF) that children and adolescents are the fastest growing sector of identity fraud victims. Children are targeted because they have good credit reports and their credit histories may not be reviewed for years until they apply for student loans or their first loans. Of course, while the Hello Barbie may not be shaking kids down for their Social Security numbers, these toys offer a great opportunity to consider the privacy risks posed to children.

Todd M. Rowe is an attorney in the Chicago office of Tressler LLP. He focuses his practice in insurance coverage representing specialty, property and commercial lines insurers in litigation and non-litigation disputes. He also regularly provides guidance on issues related to policy analysis and drafting and claims handling procedures. Todd has actively practiced in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois and has been involved in a number of insurance coverage matters in various other states. He is a regular contributor to Tressler LLP’s data and privacy blog