Your children’s My Friend Cayla and I-Que Robot may be spying on them, according to a consumer watchdog group concerned about protecting children’s privacy.
As CNN reports, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has joined forces with the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, and the Consumers Union to officially file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over the toys’ alleged spying capabilities. You can read the complaint in its entirety here.
Officially, My Friend Cayla and the I-Que Robot, made by Genesis Toys, use voice-recognition technology similar to that used by Siri or Cortana. Children speak to the toys, which record the words, convert them to text, and then, via the internet, access Google or other information sources. The speech-to-text software program is called Nuance.
As it turns out, Nuance has other clients as well: specifically, the military, plus certain law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The consumer watchdog groups’ complaint alleges that Nuance records children’s conversations and then sells the data to those agencies. The toy manufacturer does not warn parents about this “feature.”
“Both Genesis Toys and Nuance Communications unfairly and deceptively collect, use, and disclose audio files of children’s voices without providing adequate notice or obtaining verified parental consent.”
The complaint alleges that Nuance uses the data to improve its products, particularly the ones that it sells to the military, effectively turning the children who play with the toys into an unwitting crowdsourcing effort to make better military-grade surveillance systems.
Beyond just the voice-recognition capabilities, the My Friend Cayla doll is also accompanied by a mobile app that asks kids for some personal information, including their favorite TV show and their favorite foods and favorite toys, as well as some sensitive personal information, including their name and their parents’ names, where they live, and where they go to school. It’s not clear what Nuance does with that information.
Further, the suit says, the My Friend Cayla and I-Que Robot toys use the data they gather for children for a much more direct and immediate purpose: product placement.
“My Friend Cayla is pre-programmed with dozens of phrases that reference Disneyworld and Disney movies. For example, Cayla tells children that her favorite movie is Disney’s The Little Mermaid and her favorite song is ‘Let it Go,’ from Disney’s Frozen. Cayla also tells children she loves going to Disneyland and wants to go to Epcot in Disneyworld.”
Children don’t realize they’re listening to sales pitches, the complaint says.
Richard Mack, Nuance’s vice president of corporate marketing and communications, denies that the company uses the data gathered from the children for any nefarious purpose or that it’s used for any reason at all.
“Upon learning of the consumer advocacy groups’ concerns through media, we validated that we have adhered to our policy with respect to the voice data collected through the toys referred to in the complaint. Nuance does not share voice data collected from or on behalf of any of our customers with any of our other customers.”
For the Electronic Privacy Information Center and other groups involved in the complaint, that’s not good enough. They want the products removed from stores, and they want the FTC to investigate.
At least one European country has taken the concerns about the toys’ alleged privacy violations to heart: in The Netherlands, stores have removed My Friend Cayla and I-Que Robot from store shelves.
[Featured Image by Rob Stothard/Getty Images]