A lot of children talk to their toys; whether it be dolls at a tea party or villainous action figures in an imaginative sandbox war, kids find ways to use their imagination. In today’s increasing surveillance state, however, even toys have become a means for data collection and control – leveraged against both children and their parents.
In December 2016, a doll made by Genesis Toys was the subject of a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and other citizen advocacy groups. The complaint alleged that the doll “subject[ed] young children to ongoing surveillance” and violated privacy and consumer protection laws. While CNN covered it with one story, many other media outlets didn’t bother – but they should have. The accusations are true; this doll is a surveillance tool.
My Friend Cayla, as the toy is called, has a wireless connection that links the ‘baby’ to the internet. Not only does the doll spit out advertising for companies such as Disney through pre-programmed phrases (such as that she loves to go to Disneyland), but it listens to and records children who interact with her – as well as anyone else speaking near the doll. It then uploads the voiceprint of your child (or you) to servers run by Nuance, the company who brought you Dragon Naturally Speaking. Nuance also makes programs for the government, including voice recognition technology meant to identify criminals – or anyone else it wants to isolate.
What could a company that provides voice recognition software to the intelligence community possibly want or need with a voiceprint of you or your child? No matter what the answer to that question is, it’s certainly not Constitutional.
The Guardian reports that the German government declared the My Friend Cayla doll to be “an illegal espionage apparatus,” and warned that it would levy fines against retailers and parents who do not permanently disable the wireless connection. According to the Guardian report, the doll uses an unsecured connection, which means anyone could intercept the toy’s ‘phone-home’ capability and also monitor your child.
Nuance claims that it “doesn’t sell or use the voice data it collects for marketing or advertising purposes,” but an analysis of the company’s statements by watchdog group Order of the White Rose showed that Nuance is dancing around the truth. If the company admits they’re collecting voice data from your child (and anyone else near the doll), but claims they aren’t using the data for advertising, then why are they collecting it?
Parents who have a My Friend Cayla doll in their household should disable the internet connectivity immediately unless they want every word said near the toy to be recorded and uploaded to Nuance. When your child’s toys are collecting conversations in the privacy of your own home, it’s safe to say that surveillance has moved into dangerous territory.