Is Barbie’s smart home spying on kids? Launch revives privacy concerns

barbie spy red hair doll

Barbie is moving into her very own connected smart home in 2016, but with Internet-capable features like voice command, is this toy able to listen in on kids conversations and home activities?

Barbie gets smart

Following last year’s release of Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi-enabled version of the doll that relies on the Internet for its Siri-like functions, Mattel, Inc. is completing the connected experience with the Barbie Hello Dream House.

Like the connected doll, the Barbie Hello Dream House connects to the cloud via Wi-Fi to process voice commands in real-time. Kids can use their voice to control when lights come on or off, and even manage bulb colors or a set of actions such as turning the lights on in the bathroom and triggering the sound of running water when the kid says “getting ready for school.”

The dollhouse is also equipped with an elevator which can also be voice controlled to go to the floor where Barbie is. There’s even a special “Party Mode” that comes with flashing lights and transforms the staircase into a slide so Barbie can quickly go to her partying guests, and what party will be complete without music? Of course Party Mode comes with fun music.

Barbie Star Light Adventure RC Hoverboard

Barbie Star Light Adventure RC Hoverboard on show at the New York Toy Fair CREDIT: DIANE BONDAREFF/AP

Hello Barbie currently sells for $74.99 and the Barbie Hello Dream House will be released in Fall 2016 with a price tag of $399. The Barbie Hello Dream House is on display at the New York Toy Fair 2016 where Mattel also showcased Barbie’s new ride –  a hoverboard. The Star Light Adventure RC hoverboard RC drone actually flies Barbie above ground and will also be available later this year for $60.

Another nail in the coffin

While toys are getting smarter, their security loopholes are getting wider as the broader industry of connected devices lacks built-in protection against hacker vulnerabilities. This is particularly concerning for connected children’s toys, as kids privacy is continuously being ignored. Earlier this year it was revealed that Fischer-Price Smart Toy and hereO GPS had issued with their APIs thus exposing kids’ personal data such as name and birthday, among other information. Last year,  VTech Holdings Ltd. was hacked and compromised messages between parents and their kids and exposed thousands of photos as well.

Many of these concerns were raised before Hello Barbie was made available to the masses, but have they all been addressed with Mattel’s latest launch?

image via Toyland Gizmodo under CC

image via Toyland Gizmodo under CC

In an earlier statement back when plans for Hello Barbie were first unveiled, a spokesperson for the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood raised the concern that “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…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.”

But last December, it was discovered that the mobile app and cloud storage system used by Hello Barbie had security flaws that hackers can easily exploit to eavesdrop on children conversing with their toys. Though ToyTalk, Inc., the company behind the talking technology of Hello Barbie, stated that they are working to secure the toy, it would appear that security and privacy are not appropriately prioritized for these manufacturers.

When the Barbie Hello Dream House hits store shelves, parent’s who fork out $399 for the dollhouse and have already purchased the Hello Barbie doll, their children will have two devices that are always on, potentially listening to conversations in the home. In this day and age when the government has admitted that it can use connected devices to spy on you, is it really wise to have unprotected connected toys lying around the house? 

Whatever happened to kids just using their imaginations?

photo credit: . via photopin (license)