FTC Files Privacy Concern Suit over Hi-Tech Doll

With its built-in microphone, Bluetooth connectivity, and web-based functions, the new My Friend Cayla doll from Genesis Toys might seem like a fun and interactive toy for children. Basically, children can ask the doll questions and it will search for an answer, uniquely combining traditional a toy with the future of consumer information technology.

But once you get passed that initial excitement over what this toy can actually do you might also start to have concerns over what this doll might be able to do without you knowing. This is certainly the case with the My Friend Cayla doll as the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has filed a complaint that the doll could pose a potential privacy risk after the Norwegian Consumer Council announced that the doll’s wireless connection might actually be vulnerable to hackers.

This is important, of course, as kid’s products need to adhere to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998.

In the FTC Complaint Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Claire T. Gartland argues, “With the growing Internet of Things, American consumers face unprecedented levels of surveillance in their most private spaces, and young children are uniquely vulnerable to these invasive practices.”

She goes on to say, “The FTC has an obligation here to step in and safeguard the privacy of young children against toys that spy and companies that exploit their very voices for corporate gain.”

Effectively, the My Friend Cayla doll works similar to the Amazon Echo or the Apple iPhone’s voice features. More ear than brain, the microphone function simply takes in audio data and sends it to the main server for the actual crunching of the numbers, so to speak, in order to provide an answer.

It sounds simple enough (and children are already learning to use the iPhone, for example, to answer questions from the web) so what is the big deal?

Well, consumer watchdog groups suspect that there is a bit more to these innocent audio files than search query entries. For example, Stanford University Center for Internet and Society’s director of privacy, Albert Gidari, notes, “The cost of the device is not the ultimate revenue for these companies. Advertising and personal information are what’s at the end of the rainbow for them.”

In Cayla’s case, then, these groups exert that the audio files she records get put in a database maintained by Nuance Communications, a technology partner of Genesis Toys. This company also, conveniently, develops voice-recognition programs for the military and domestic law enforcement