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This 'smart' Barbie is raising concerns over children's privacy

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Hello Barbie uses speech recognition technology to learn about its owner

Privacy campaigners are demanding that toymaker Mattel halts the production of Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled doll that records children's conversations to learn about their likes, dislikes, and ambitions. Mattel says the doll's voice-recognition technology allows it have a "unique relationship" with its owner, but advocates from the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood (CCFC) say the new technology could be exploited.

Intimate conversations are "recorded and analyzed."

"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," said Angela Campbell, a law professor and a privacy specialist, in a statement from the CCFC. "In Mattel's demo, Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests, and her family. This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children."

Mattel unveiled Hello Barbie in February this year at the New York Toy Fair, with a demonstration showing off the doll's capacity to recall and respond to information. First, a representative for Mattel presses the button that activates the doll's microphone and tells Barbie that she likes being on stage. Later, when the rep asks Barbie what she should be when she grows up, the doll responds: "Well, you told me you like being on stage, so maybe a dancer? Or a politician? Or how about a dancing politician? I always say, anything is possible."

Hello Barbie uses speech-recognition technology created by San Francisco startup ToyTalk to provide these responses. ToyTalk was founded by a pair of former Pixar employees and has already created a number of paid iOS apps that let children have conversations with a range of creatures, from animals in the zoo to mythical beasts.

ToyTalk stores recordings to carry out "data analysis."

The company's privacy policy states that it may "use, store, process, and transcribe recordings" in order to "improve speech recognition technology" and carry out "research and development and data analysis." The company says it also shares recordings with third-party vendors who "assist us with speech recognition." A report by Fast Company says that ToyTalk uses its recorded conversations to create its "branching dialogue" with children. Writers employed by the company reportedly study audio recordings of conversations to come up with new replies and topics to talk about.

ToyTalk has said that its privacy policy is still under development, with the company telling The Washington Post that by the time Hello Barbie goes on sale later this year, parents will probably have to sign into an app and consent to having the child's voice recorded before the technology is activated. ToyTalk's chief executive Oren Jacob also stressed that data the company collects is "never used for anything to do with marketing or publicity," while a spokesperson for Mattel added the toymaker was "committed to safety and security."

Thanks to apps like Siri, we're already used to talking to computers

Whether or not children will respond positively to Hello Barbie is unknown, but this sort of natural language AI interaction is already becoming commonplace thanks to smartphone assistants like Siri and Google Now. Although the more human responses these apps can produce are limited, there are stories of children becoming emotionally attached to their know-it-all, digital BFFs. A representative for Mattel said in February: "The number one request we keep getting from girls is that they want to be able to have a conversation with Barbie. They want to talk to Barbie."

Even if Mattel and ToyTalk aren't using this technology to feed data to advertisers, they're still hoping to manufacture deep, emotional bonds between children and their toys. Susan Linn, the director of the CCFC, has said this is unequivocally "creepy" and creates "a host of dangers" for children and families. "Kids using 'Hello Barbie' aren't only talking to a doll," said Linn, "They are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial."