Barbie the Spy!
For many people reading this, there are at least two concepts that will offend.
One is surveillance, about which we've written often on this site. The other is the Barbie doll: the ubiquitous toy that has for decades molded girls' (and boys’) concept of "the perfect female" as having an impossible-to-achieve figure derived from sexist fantasy and has 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 new version of this product toy-maker Mattel Inc. 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.
This 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. Given a little time, it will have profiled your child and turned her 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 doll’s owner happens to belong to an activist family, she and her siblings and friends could become a potential source of information about activities, movements, meetings...all the stuff the National Security Agency captures email, texts and phone conversations to find out.
Mattel insists that protective measures will be in place. It claims 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. The company says that 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.