Cyber-Barbie Sparks Questions about Data and Privacy

Barbies

For all of the advancements technology brings us, from the every-day, such as the navigational abilities in our smartphones, to the incredible, such as the invention of an ebola-fighting serum using tobacco plants (seriously cool!) – concerns about privacy and security rise to the top of every conversation about enabling technology to make our lives easier and our interactions with it more seamless.

The story of Hello Barbie, the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, is an interesting look at the desire for a more intuitive, responsive, inter-connected world versus the fear of relinquishing one’s own (or one’s child’s own) privacy. Fast Company reported that Hello Barbie was developed by Mattel in response to the fact that:

“kids’ number-one request for decades has been to be able to talk to Barbie” – Michelle Chidoni, Mattel’s director of communications, said.

Many organizations and parents were distraught by the discovery that in order to converse with children in such a personal, responsive way, Hello Barbie records children’s voices. This isn’t the first toy to do so, however, the difference is that the recordings are sent via wifi to a cloud server where they are analyzed in order for Barbie to provide an appropriate response.

Watch a demo of Hello Barbie in Action

Inventions of this type can be exciting to marketers who are always looking for more unique ways to connect directly to consumers and learn as much about what’s important to them as possible. One could even dream into the future and imagine a robotic health support bot answering basic medical questions in a similar way. From the perspectives of privacy advocates and parents concerned for the safety and security of their children, it does ring on the creepy side. And perhaps that really is the key to this example. The fact that we’re talking about children here changes the conversation.

Mattel has been careful to cover their tracks in terms of privacy by making parents who purchase the toy agree to terms of use that include the collection of data (i.e., their child’s recordings), and the toy can only be activated when this agreement is approved, thereby connecting Barbie to a mobile app on parents’ phones. Parents can even download and listen to their children’s recordings, the purpose of which is unclear to me and seems equally as creepy as the fact that it is being collected in the first place.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, as a marketer, collecting data from target audiences is a key step in terms of measurement, which enables us to respond to customers in terms of assessing their current impressions and determining what they want to see next. A product like this provides the consumer, in this case children, with the type of responsive, customized technology they have come to expect from developers. The other result this type of technology is usually used to achieve is to use collected data to help developers and marketers learn as much about their audiences as possible, however since the audience in this case is children, Fast Company quotes Co-Founder and CEO of ToyTalk (the company responsible for creating the technology that makes Hello Barbie come to life), Oren Jacob as saying:

“Under Hello Barbie’s terms of service, recordings “may be used for research and development purposes,” things like improving its technology and refining its algorithms. The data is “absolutely not allowed to be used for advertising, publicity, or marketing purposes.”

This is where the definition of “marketing” becomes a little grey. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is questioning whether Hello Barbie making mention of Barbie and her friends constitutes marketing. Technically I suppose it could be argued that Barbie talking about Barbie could be viewed as a promotional tool, but, I don’t think that is the real issue here.

Strictly speaking, the use of this technology really isn’t any different from the concept of adults agreeing to share their personal health information with a widespread health network to enable providers to provide better, more personalized care wherever they find themselves needing it, which many countries, the U.S., included, have bought into to a larger extent. Perhaps then, what consumers are not ready for is to hand over the privacy rights of their children, particularly when it is only for the purpose of entertainment and financial gain for the toy industry, as opposed to – for example – an improved healthcare experience. Also, in the healthcare example, adults are consenting to handing over their personal information, whereas the children playing with Hello Barbie are unaware that they are being recorded.

“There’s a difference between an adult knowingly giving their information to a company and a child unknowingly playing with a data-collecting toy.” – Mashable

At least for now, it seems that this is where the thousands of people who’ve signed a petition against the release of Hello Barbie in the Fall of 2015 seem to draw the line.

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