Saturday, December 10, 2016

Is This Doll Spying On Your Kids?

I'm glad I'm not a parent of young children.
Is this cute little computerized
doll named Cayla spying on
kids and saving their information?

Especially this time of year.  

So many things to consider. Is the toy safe? Will the kid like it? Will it instill the values we want in our children? Is it too expensive?

Unfortunately, parents now have a new, much more insidious worry: Is the toy spying on our children, on the family? Is the toy gathering intelligence on us?

This feels like Brave New World, but apparently, it's here.

According to Huffington Post and other news organizations, a group of consumer watchdog organizations has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, saing the dolls "My Friend Cayla" and "Que Intelligent Robot" have speech recognition software that gleans information from kids.

According to the FTC complaint:

"By design and purpose, these toys record and collect the private conversations of young children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal information.

The toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance and are deployed in homes across the United States without any meaningful data protection standards. They pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States."

Sounds dire to me!

But how are these spy dolls doing this?

The concept of the dolls is really cool, until you think about how the dolls might collect information.

What child (or adult for that matter) wouldn't like adoll or other toy that has software that allows the doll to provide appropriate responses to everything the child says?

"Cayla can understand and respond to you in real time about almost anything.....She is not a doll...she's a real friend!" goes the Cayla advertising material.

I don't think that part of the FTC complaint iss the real objection.

But if you think about, as the people who filed the complaint have, this could be really underhanded.

Part of the complaint is fairly trivial, to be honest. Cayla mentions she likes the movie "Frozen," the movie "The Little Mermaid" and enjoys Disneyworld

The FTC complaint says that's product placement, and children don't recognize it as advertising.

That's probably true, but we're used to this by now.

To me, the real disturbing part of Cayla the doll is the information they try to glean from the kids who play with them.  Accompanying material with Cayla asks children to provide their name, mom and dad's name, which school they go to, their favorite foods and TV programs and things like that.

It's all about marketing and advertising, but it's creepy that a company would know all this stuff about a kid and her family. Especially since hackers can probably get in and cause all sorts of problems with the information.

Most worrisome, the complaint to the FTC  alleges the makers of Cayla, Genesis Toys, can record and store the information that the kids tell the doll while they're playing and conversing with it. Another company, Nuance Communications, allegedly stores the recordings for Genesis Toys.

The terms of use verbiage with Cayla, explains all this access to the information they have. But with all terms of service statements, this one is really dense and difficult to understand.  Nobody actually reads terms of service statements because they're so byzantine. and if they do, they reall don't understand it. I don't, that's for sure.

The Huffington Post and CBS says Genesis Toys won't comment. Neither would Nuance Communications, but they did direct media outlets to a Nuance muckymuck named Richard Mack, who wrote the company "takes data privacy seriously." and that the company doesn't use or sell voice data for marketing or advertising purposes."

Then why do they keep it, then? Part of it might be so the dolls interact with kids better, but I'm still suspicious.

Still, if I were a parent, I'd get my kids an old fashioned Teddy Bear or something. Call me a luddite, but I'm not sure I like this Brave New World of computerized kids toys.

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