Privacy Groups Allege Children’s Secrets May Spread by Talking Dolls

Posing a privacy risk to consumers are Internet-connected toys, including several children’s dolls, allege advocacy groups. The advocacy groups for children and consumers say that the parents often aren’t aware for this.

Collection and use of personal information from children in violation of rules prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices is being done by two talking dolls—My Friend Cayla and I-Que Intelligent Robot, both made by Genesis Toys Inc., alleges a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission.

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a coalition of groups dedicated to ending child-targeted marketing, and Consumers Union, was among the several groups that drafted the complaint.

In the European Union, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland and Norway, complaints with data protection, consumer protection and product safety regulators there have also been filed by the group.

“When a toy collects personal information about a child, families have a right to know, and they need to have meaningful choices to decide how their kids’ data is used,” said Katie McInnis, technology policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports magazine.

Before collecting children’s voice recordings and other personal data while they are using the toys, Genesis Toys doesn’t get the consent of children’s parents, according to the complaint. The collected data is made use of for other products by speech-recognition software maker Nuance Communications Inc where Genesis sends the voice recordings after collection.

It has typically filed a civil administrative complaint against the company in an effort to get the allegedly offending company to change its practices in previous cases, when the FTC has found companies violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

There were no responses from Genesis Toys, which says it is based in Hong Kong with an office in Los Angeles.

The publicized hacking and the dodging of the kind of security of products such as cars, smart-home gadgets and baby monitors is exhibited by the complaint.

“It is not apparent to parents when they purchase a toy that the data is being collected,” says Erin Matzkin, a Los Angeles-based tech litigator and co-founder of parenting blog workkidswine.com.

To understand what a user is saying, speech recognition, a microphone and speakers are used by My Friend Cayla, a $60 interactive doll that users can talk to. To come up with responses, the user’s queries are submitted through a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone app by the internet-connected toy.

According to the groups filing the complaint, phrases that reference Disney World and Disney movies, such as how much she loves the Walt Disney Co. movie “The Little Mermaid,” that would be difficult for young children to recognize as advertising, is preprogrammed in the Cayla doll. A spokeswoman for Walt Disney Co. says that Disney had no knowledge of the toy’s phrases about Disney and no agreement with Genesis Toys.

“Children form friendships with dolls and toys with ‘personalities,’ and confide intimate details about their lives to them,” said Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood executive director Josh Golin. “It is critical that the sensitive data collected by these toys be subject to the most stringent protections and not be used for manipulative and sneaky marketing.”

Chief technologist at Elemental Path Inc., JP Benini says that the company decided to anonymize all data that leaves the device, even though it limits how much they can analyze the data when the company was developing its Wi-Fi-enabled toy dinosaur, Cognitoys Dino.

“We knew privacy was going to be an issue in this industry,” Mr. Benini says. “The priority is privacy.”

A report prepared by the Norwegian Consumer Council and conducted by a Scandinavian consulting group on connected toys formed the basis of the complaint filed with the FTC.

(Adapted from Wall Street Journal)

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