The “internet of things” mantra promotes the potential for the interconnectedness of everyone and everything . The fundamental premise is that embedded sensors (including audio and image) will herald in an age of convenience, security, and quick response . We have become so oblivious to the presence and placement of sensors in civil infrastructure (e.g., shopping centers and lampposts) and computing devices (e.g., laptops and smartphones) that we do not question their placement in places of worship, restrooms, and, especially, children's toys .
The risk with consumer desensitization over the “sensors everywhere” paradigm is, at times, complacency, but, for the greater part, apathy. When functionality is hidden inside a black box or is wireless, consumers can underestimate the potential for harm. The old adage “what you don't know won't hurt you” is not true in this context and neither is the “I have nothing to hide” principle. Form factors can play a significant role in disarming buyers of white goods for households and gifts for minors. In context, the power of a sensor looks innocent when it is located in a children's toy, as opposed to sitting atop a mobile closed-circuit television policing unit.
Barbie is Watching
An example of this shift in context is Mattel's Video Girl Barbie doll, launched in July 2010 . It features a fully functional standard-definition pinhole video camera embedded in Barbie's chest, with a viewing screen on her back. Young children (Mattel is targeting ages six years and above) are supported by user design to make use of “doll's-eye-view” to record Barbie's point of view for up to 30 min. They can then create movies using the accompanying StoryTeller software. Video Girl comes with a (pink) USB plug-in cord for easy upload of the recorded footage. Initially, Mattel provided storage space for video makers in the cloud to share movies (http://barbie.com/videogirl), but the company later recanted and eliminated this video-sharing capability. We have speculated that one of Mattel's reasons for doing so was because it was faced with potential footage recorded at ground level that exposed young, carefree children at play.
In his book Cybercrime, Jonathan Clough makes it clear that offenses for child pornography are stipulated in Title 3, Article 9 of the Cybercrime Convention as producing, offering or making available, distributing or transmitting, procuring, or possessing child pornography , [p. 281]. While definitions of what constitutes an offense under child pornography laws vary greatly from one country to the next, court cases worldwide are providing clear precedents for unacceptable behaviors. It is quite possible that Mattel did not wish to find itself in the precarious situation of “offering or making available” debatable imagery of young children or as a potential, albeit accidental, accessory for possession. In essence, this places the manufacturer at the mercy of those who would label them as groomers or even procurers of child pornography, engineers of another insidious arm of the child pornographer. Three of the offenses that constitute the “making available” category of child pornography laws include to publish, make available, and show , [p. 287]. Mattel had obviously not thought through all the pros and cons associated with video sharing by minors. In fact, in most social media web sites, Facebook and Instagram included, policies preclude those under the age of 13 from registration and participation.
Four months after the official launch of Video Girl, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) privately issued a warning that the doll could be used to produce child pornography . On 30 November 2010, in a situational information report “cybercrime alert,” from its Sacramento field office, the FBI publicly announced in a statement that there was “no reported evidence that the doll had been used in any way other than intended” , . However, the report also stated that the FBI had revealed that there was an instance where an individual convicted of distributing child pornography had given the Barbie doll to a 6-year-old girl. In addition, there were numerous instances where a concealed video camera had recorded child pornography as well. All of these events are unsurprising . The most obvious form of possession, with respect to the Barbie, would be if the accused had the item in his or her “present manual custody.” For example, if the defendant was found to be holding a Video Girl Barbie doll containing child pornography images or video, then, subject to the requirement of knowledge, he or she would be in possession of those images or video. In addition, if the doll was likewise found in the defendant's physical control (e.g., in his or her house), even that would constitute an offense.
There are professionals who have filmed Video Girl Barbie in a sexualized manner , but that in itself is not an offense. Although the YouTube video that compares the camera quality of the Canon 7D to Video Girl is unlisted (only people who know the link to the video can view it, and unlisted videos do not appear in YouTube search results), it sadly shows what distortion is possible through adult eyes, through using arguably borderline “adult” humor. In the YouTube comments for the video, Naxell wrote, “[t]hat USB in the back and the leg batteries make this seem like some kind of bizarre multipurpose sex gynoid,” while Marcos Vidal wrote, “Well, think on the Barbie's use; it can spy—with Cannon 7D, it's a lot harder.” While no one is claiming that Vidal was referring to the recording of a child for duplicitous reasons, it certainly suggests that Barbie could be used as a covert camera. Essentially, it is taking a form of child's play and making that an asset of the cloud for future use and possible manipulation. And this is just a fundamental issue in the new type of cybercrime—that “the advent of digital technology has transformed the way in which child pornography is produced and distributed” , [p. 251]. In essence, child pornography can be defined as “the sexual depiction of a child under a certain age” , [p. 255].
While we do not need to point to a video someone has made of Barbie and her super-power recording prowess “under the hood,” we can simply look at Mattel's poor taste in advertising strategy for the Video Girl doll as a children's toy. The key question is whether those who engineered the doll at Mattel understand that they are accountable for the purposeful user design and user experience they have created . In a press release, the company stated, “Mattel products are designed with children and their best interests in mind. Many of Mattel's employees are parents themselves, and we understand the importance of child safety—it is our number one priority” .
At the time of the online media content review in early 2011, one of the authors, Katina Michael, was horrified to find some disturbing ways in which Mattel had softly launched the product. In fact, the doll sold out at Wal-Mart in its first release. The other author, Alexander Hayes, purchased a Barbie Video Girl in 2010 to inform his Ph.D. research on point-of-view technologies, and he told Katina that the doll was “hideous…a manifestation of the most cruel manner in which to permeate a child's play.” Katina agreed and noted that the purchased Barbie would remain forever unopened because the packaging itself formed a part of the bigger picture they would need to use for a stimulus for discussion to public audiences. Katina used the packaged Barbie during her presentation at the Fourth Regional Conference on Cybercrime and International Criminal Cooperation, which was well attended by law enforcement agencies, legal personnel, and scholars in the social implications of technology . The Video Girl Barbie also made further appearances at the February 2012 SINS Workshop, “Point-of-View Technologies in Law Enforcement” , and an invited workshop at which Katina and Alexander spoke, the 2013 INFORMA Policing Technology Conference on the theme “Bring Your Own Body-Worn Device” .
Perhaps the most disturbing and disappointing aspect of the Video Girl Barbie was the way in which the doll was marketed. On the packaging was the statement “I am a real working video camera.” This vernacular is akin to adult sex workers and does not fit with societal moral and ethical frameworks by which we protect innocent children. It is questionable why the word working was introduced into the phraseology. In essence, Video Girl Barbie is a photoborg . She is reminiscent of Mattel's Vidster video camera toy for kids , cloaked in the form of a Barbie doll. Elsewhere, Mattel mentions: “Necklace is a real camera lens!” But the location of the camera on the chest looks less like a necklace and more like cleavage with an additional statement: “This Barbie has a hidden video camera” . There was also a picture of Barbie depicted on her knees with a visual didactic stating “for easy shooting,” indicating the three steps to making a movie. The storytelling video demo scenario Mattel used had to do with cats at the vet and was generally in poor taste. The cat was depicted getting her heartbeat monitored in one video scene, getting an X-ray in another, and then finding herself in a basket with another cat and finding love, with a heart symbol depicted above the cats' heads.
Comments varied for iJustine's video “OMG Video Girl,” which has more than 1.4 million YouTube views . Here was a female adult commenting on a toy for kids. Taylor Johnson wrote, “My Favorite was the vet Barbie! Haha!” Mssjasmine commented, “That doll is kinda creepy (like a pedophile would buy that to watch little kids…ew).” Sam Speirs similarly wrote, “This ‘toy’ of yours will/could be used as a major predator trap! And I know that the idea was for the girls to have a camera [to] do stuff, but, seriously, it's a concealed camera in a popular little girl's toy…Creepy, if you ask me!” Another product reviewer of children's toys wrote: “Barbie sees everything from a whole different angle” . There were several “Boycott Barbie” websites found in 2011: “Get Rid of Barbie Video Girl” Facebook page and “Boycott Porno Barbie.”
Perhaps the worst example of Mattel's approach in this product was its initial press release (sent to TechCrunch by the PR firm responsible), which stated: “Unsuspecting subjects won't know that Barbie is watching their every move…” . Issues for Mattel to consider have much to do with corporate responsibility. Excluding the potential for pedophiles to use this technology to cause harm, what happens if innocents produce illegal content which would otherwise mean criminalization? Could the doll be used to groom and seduce victims of child pornography?
Hello? Barbie is Listening
But Mattel, like most high-tech manufacturers, has not stopped there. Convergence has become an integral part of the development cycle. If the Barbie Video Girl doll seemed amazing as a concept, then the Hello Barbie doll has outdone it. In its own words, Mattel states that the Hello Barbie is “a whole new way to play with Barbie!” She differs from Barbie Video Girl in several ways. The doll still comes equipped with a whole bunch of electronics, but Hello Barbie uses speech-recognition technology to hold a conversation with a child and only allows for still-shot photo capture. The product information page on Mattel's website reads:
Using Wi-Fi and speech-recognition technology, Hello Barbie doll can interact uniquely with each child by holding conversations, playing games, sharing stories, and even telling jokes! […] Use is simple after set up—push the doll's belt buckle to start a conversation, and release to hear her respond […] To get started, download the Hello Barbie companion app to your own smart device from your device's app store (not included). Parents must also set up a ToyTalk account and connect the doll to use the conversational features. Hello Barbie doll can remember up to three different Wi-Fi locations .
This raises many questions about the trajectory of toys and everyday products that increasingly contain networked features that introduce new parameters to what was once innocent child's play, unseen and carefree. First, Samsung launched a television set that can hear household conversations , and now we are to believe that it is the real Barbie who is “chatting” with our children. Are we too blind to see what is occurring? Is this really play? Or is it the best way of gathering marketing data and instituting further manipulation into those too young to know that the Barbie talking to them is not real and actually a robot of sorts? Just like we were once oblivious to the fact that our typed entries in search boxes were being collated to study our habits, likes, and dislikes, we are presently oblivious to the onslaught of products that are trying to infiltrate our homes and even our minds.
A spate of products has entered the market doing exactly the same thing as Hello Barbie but targeting a variety of vertical segments—from Amazon Echo for families who allegedly need a cloud connector because they cannot spell words like cantaloupe ,  to NEST's thermostat and smoke-detection capability that doubles as human activity monitoring and tracking (NEST says so openly in its promotional commercials) , to DropCam's reconnaissance video recordings of what happens in your household 24/7, just in case there is a perpetrator who dares to enter .
Cayla is Talking—And It's Not Always Pretty
Perhaps our “favorite” is the My Friend Cayla doll , which connects to the cloud like the Hello Barbie. She is seemingly innocent but has shown herself to be the stuff of nightmares, akin to the horror movie Child's Play featuring the character Chucky . On the Australian Cayla page, potential buyers are again greeted by a splash page with a cat on it: “I love my cat Lily. I will tell you her story.” Cayla is depicted talking to two little girls. The British Christmas best seller is effectively a Bluetooth headset dressed as a doll. With the help of a Wi-Fi connection (like Hello Barbie), she can answer a whole lot of tough questions, Amazon Echo style, and you would be surprised at her capacity . But security researcher Ken Munro from Pen Test Partners put Cayla to the test and identified some major security flaws that could give perpetrators a way in. In essence, Cayla was hacked. She was made to speak a list of 1,500 strong words and expletives, and her responses to questions were modified .
This reminds us of the 2015 article in IEEE Technology and Society Magazine by K. Albrecht and L. McIntyre on IP cameras that double as baby monitors . The moral of the story is the same whether the cloud-connected device is a children's monitor, children's toy, desktop game for kids, television console, Q&A tool for households, or a plain-old Wi-Fi-enabled smoke detector or thermostat: if it's connected, then it's vulnerable to security hacks and breaches in privacy . Worse still, if it can talk back to you in the spoken word, then you need to think about the logic behind the process and what we are teaching our children about what is human and what is not. If these electronics products are going back to the Internet seeking results, then don't be surprised if nonphysical autonomous software robots one day begin to spit out bizarre answers and manipulative responses based on what is out there on the Internet.
As Kate Darling said in a Berkman talk at Harvard University in 2013, “[s]o not to undermine everything that I've just said here, but I do wonder…Say McDonald's gets its hands on a whole bunch of children's toys that are social robots and interacts with the kids socially, and the toys are telling the kids…to eat more McDonald's, and the kids are responding to that. That is something that we also need to think about and talk about, when these things start to happen. They could be used for good and for evil” . If only that is all they will be saying to the next generation!
Katina visited the My Friend Cayla website recently and found this message: “Due to changes in the external website which Cayla gets some information from, she is temporarily unable to answer some types of questions. Cayla can still talk about herself, do maths and spelling, and all other functions are unaffected. A free app update will be issued (for both iOS and Android users) within the next two weeks with a fix. Thank you for your understanding” . Keeping our children safe and aware of the difference between virtual and real is one thing, but, if we aren't careful, we will soon welcome a future where My Friend Cayla might well be facing off against Hello Barbie in another Child's Play blockbuster.
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Keywords: Cameras, Sensors, Consumer electronics, Motion pictures, Computer crime, YouTube, Context, social aspects of automation, cloud computing, Internet of Things, children toys, high-tech child play, cloud, Internet of Things, embedded sensors, civil infrastructure, computing devices
Citation: Katina Michael, Alexander Hayes, High-Tech Child's Play in the Cloud: Be safe and aware of the difference between virtual and real, IEEE Consumer Electronics Magazine ( Volume: 5, Issue: 1, Jan. 2016 ), pp. 123 - 128, Date of Publication: 11 December 2015. DOI: 10.1109/MCE.2015.2484878