For many reading this, there are two concepts that offend.
One is surveillance, about which we've written often on this site and others. The other is the Barbie doll: the ubiquitous doll that has for decades molded girls' concept of "the perfect female" as an impossible to achieve figure derived from sexist fantasy and taught them that their lives should be about dressing up and attracting the attention of a boring male named "Ken".
There are, of course, many other offensive things going on in the world but these two catch the writer's attention because, in a product toy-maker Mattel is introducing to the market this Fall, they are combined. Barbie, the girl you can never be (and shouldn't ever want to be), is now a spy.
The company introduced its new doll, called "Hello Barbie" at a February trade fair in New York and...well, you can't make this stuff up.
The doll can converse with you (or with your child unless you play with dolls) and record the answers. It then transmits these answers to a data-bank at the company's headquarters and stores them under the child's name and other personal information, then analyzes this data and responds to it...immediately or months later. It has profiled your child and turned the child into an information gathering source.
For example, during the demonstration at the toy fair, the Washington Post's Sarah Halzak reports, "...the Mattel representative chatting with Hello Barbie mentioned that she liked being onstage. Later in the conversation, when the Mattel representative asked Hello Barbie what she should be when she grew up, the doll responded, 'Well, you told me you like being onstage. So maybe a dancer? Or a politician? Or how about a dancing politician?'"
While being a "dancing politician" might land someone in the Congress these days, the possibilities for more serious abuse abound. Children talk about their lives and the lives of their families. They often lack the boundaries about what is personal or private. In fact, if the family is an activist family, the children are a potential source of information about activities, movements, meetings...all the stuff the NSA captures email to find out.
Mattel insists that protective measures will be in place. It will turn the data-gathering capability on only after parents have signed some kind of, probably on-line, agreement and it will never use the data for marketing purposes or anything intrusive. It's only seeking this information to improve its product -- kind of like turning its entire customer base into a focus group.
"Mattel is committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards," the company said in a statement.
That's precisely what many privacy advocates like the folks at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are worried about.
Even parents who are aware of the impact of privacy issues, and many probably aren't, would likely find it difficult to refuse to approve the chat capability. After all, how do you explain to a daughter why she can't talk with her doll like many of her friends are doing?
Even more troubling, we have dolls in millions of family homes recording and transmitting information in line with the "guidelines" of the most advanced and intrusive information gathering government in the world: a government that has treated the Constitution like a bad joke. This is the company's "assurance"?
While there are legal and moral issues involved in using this technology and a conversation with a child to improve a product, as Mattel claims it will do, the bigger worry is what it isn't saying it will do.
Will there be a strict policy about how this information will be used or who it will be provided to? For example, say members of this family are now on the NSA's watch-list, which just about every activist in this country now is. Would Mattel resist if the government says it wants the tapes of Barbie conversations to learn what kids may know about what their parents are doing or where they are going (information a child might speak about) or if it wants to insert probing questions into the doll's conversation to get that kind of information?
What if the government tells the company to turn the doll on for certain households even if there is no parental consent? Or what if the doll's programming allows it to pose more invasive questions exploring the child's and family's life -- like a skilled interrogator in a stupid little prom dress? Is that an information-gathering opportunity anyone believes that the "vacuum it all up" NSA is going to pass up?