By: Louisane Raisonnier – Blog Writer
Mattel’s Hello Barbie, released in 2015, is a new kind of barbie that features a microphone and a Wi-Fi interface. The interactive doll connects to the internet via Wi-Fi and the microphone records and processes the information before answering with natural language responses. The Hello Barbie Doll was at first praised for being the first interactive doll capable of communicating with its users and responding to them but this general excitement was quickly replaced by skepticism.
Many questions arose just a few weeks after the release of “the smart doll”, particularly, how is the user’s data used and is it saved and stored ?
While Mattel emphasized that “the data isn’t being retained or harvested” , many users remained skeptical concerning the statement, and their concerns were valid! Computer security researchers discovered several flaws within the toy’s system that could potentially let hackers eavesdrop on communications between the doll and the cloud-based voice recognition technology it connects to.
A video explaining how the Hello Barbie works
Thus, when connected to the internet via Wi-Fi, the Barbie Hello is very vulnerable to hacking. This allows anyone to easily access the doll’s system information such as audio files recorded with the microphone. The information obtained by the toy could also allow hackers to take over a home Wi-Fi network and thus access to other connected devices. Personal information could be stolen from families, without their knowledge.
Due to all the issues in its system, we can say that the doll, which seemed to be a great innovation at first, is more of surveillance device than a real child’s toy. The simple fact that the doll is able to listen to conversations without the owner’s knowledge shows how dangerous it can be. Researchers even mentioned that it could be the ultimate in audio surveillance device for miscreant hackers.
Beyond the dangers of hacking that it represents, we are faced with other issues that make the interactive toy more harmful. We explained how one doesn’t know how the stored data is used and how seriously dangerous it can be. One of its potential uses could be commercial exploitation. When talking to the Barbie Hello, children are not only talking to a doll, but they are also talking directly to a toy conglomerate (Mattel) whose only interest in them is financial. By listening to recordings of the child, Mattel could be inspired to develop and create new concepts which responds to the child’s requests and desires. This feeds the consumer society, which makes the toy a trap for the consumer.
The Hello Barbie can also have an influence on the child at the psychological level. The doll can answer really complex questions such as “what should I be when I grow up” , which means that it can, in a way, influence a child’s desires and ambitions. Researchers at Oregon State University discovered that playing with sexualized dolls “not only hurts self-esteem, it influences the way young girls think about their adult lives”. Consequently, we can say that dolls can influence a child’s idea of their future.
The researchers even added that “little girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves.” By answering questions about a child’s future, the doll could influence childhood development, which is already complex.
To circumvent this phenomenon, many artists developed their own doll alternatives. For example, a British teacher created talking Jamaican dolls to inspire young immigrants and dark-skinned girls. The Zuree doll speaks Jamaican and inspires young girls to be proud of who they are and not being brainwashed by the lack of black figures in the toy industry. Contrary to the Wi-Fi Hello Barbie, this doll isn’t connected to Wi-Fi and can only say preconceived sentences. It can’t communicate with the child but is far less dangerous for its health. It also has a more significative impact on the child’s ambitions and projections for the future.
Furthermore, besides the concerns the doll’s privacy issues, another dangerous problem should also be considered; the electromagnetic radiation of the doll which could affect a child’s health. GEOVITAL, an environmental medicine group, tested the radiation exposure of the toy and found out that the “air measurements of EMF radiation shot up very frequently during conservation with the Barbie.” Researchers declared that such a high frequency makes sense as the information of the child’s voice needs to go to the company that interprets the response so “the ‘Hello Barbie’ can be notified by Wi-Fi how to respond best to what the child is saying.” The results have trouble many parents and some have even started a petition in order to stop the release of more interactive Barbie dolls. Whether this is enough to harm children is up to debate but some parents may not be too keen to allow their children to play with Hello Barbie if there is no official consensus on its effects.
Finally, the risk that represents the barbie doll could be the fact that it encourages the creation of more technology advanced products and toys, such as robots generated by artificial intelligence, and let’s face it : those are not the best toys a kid can play with to give rein to his/her imagination.
Interactive toys such as the Wi-Fi Hello Barbie, by influencing thought, career ambitions and with the simple fact that they can spy on their owners, show that they aren’t really toys. They are more of a product of the consumer society and can be accused of brainwashing children, without them knowing. While it was certainly a great initiative to create a more technological toy, the risks it represents attenuate the potential of its positive outcomes.
Louisane is a U2 Political Science student at McGill who is concerned with surveillance rights.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of OpenMedia McGill.