Imagine your favorite toy as a child, your favorite doll, action figure, or stuffed animal. The toy you’d take with you everywhere you went. The doll that you enjoyed dressing up and telling all of your secrets to. This toy was your best friend that you trusted, but what if that trust was jeopardized. Or in better terms, what if your best friend stabbed you in the back? I can’t be the only one who subconsciously looked at my stuffed animals’ eyes and wondered if there was a camera in there. Maybe there wasn’t a camera but there’s a chance that somehow the toys were listening. Wait- I promise I’m not crazy; this is a real thing.
“Your Kids’ Toys Could Be Spying on Your Family,” titled a recent CBS News article. “Talking Dolls May Spread Children’s Secrets, Privacy Groups Allege” a title from the Wall Street Journal. These are just a couple of examples of the recent news that has been circling around the internet.
A company called Genesis Toys Inc. has made headlines for current allegations that they’re facing. Allegedly two of their products, two talking dolls called My Friend Cayla and I-Que Intelligent Robot, have the ability to eavesdrop, record, and send information from their owners’ homes to a software company that has contracts with military and intelligence agencies (Picchi, 2016).
“The doll asks kids to finish answering questions about their family members’ names, where they attend school and where they live.
That seems fairly straightforward for a doll that’s geared to responding personally to kids, but more troubling may be what happens next. The recordings are allegedly sent to Nuance Communications, a speech-to-text company that sells voice biometric services to military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The complaint alleges that Nuance has more than 30 million ‘voiceprints’ in its system” (Picchi, 2016).
Another part of this issue that seemed a bit eerie to me is the fact that not only can Nuance Communications have access to the information collected, virtually anyone nearby can listen in on what’s going on around these toys.
“Researchers discovered that by connecting one phone to the doll through the insecure Bluetooth connection and calling that phone with a second phone, they were able to both converse with and covertly listen to conversations collected through the My Friend Cayla and i-Que toys” (Picchi, 2016).
This brings up the idea that we are constantly being watched. The idea of surveillance isn’t new. Economic and political surveillance are the two major forms of surveillance (Fuchs, 2012). On the economic end, surveillance is a big part of consumerism and helps corporations know who their target audience is and how to market to them. Companies need to be able to sell their products to make profit and to survive. Thus, helping the economy by continuing the circulation of money. If you want to bring some theory into this, Karl Marx theorized that surveillance is a fundamental aspect of the capitalist economy (Fuchs, 2012).
On the political end, nation states and corporations may use surveillance as a way to control the behavior of individuals and groups. An article by Christopher Fuchs argues that Karl Marx considers surveillance as a process that shapes modern society. Surveillance may instill fear in individuals because of the fact that their appearance, movements, location or ideas are or could be watched by surveillance systems.
“In the case of political surveillance, individuals are threatened by the potential exercise of organized violence (of the law) if they behave in certain ways that are undesired, but watched by political actors (such as secret services or the police). In the case of economic surveillance, individuals are threatened by the violence of the market that wants to force them to buy or produce certain commodities and helps reproduce capitalist relations by gathering and using information on their economic behavior.” (Fuchs, 2012).
Going back to the spy toys, created by Genesis Toys Inc., isn’t it scary that these children are being used for privacy invasion? Surveillance has its benefits if it’s being used to prevent harm within the community and helps the economy. However, some see it as intrusive and believe that the government is misusing our trust. I have a friend who is so fearful that she’s being watched that she has covered the video camera of her laptop. I questioned her about this and she brought up an interesting point. She referred me to an interesting article titled, “Documents Confirm How The NSA’s Surveillance Procedures Threaten Americans’ Privacy.” The article discusses the FISA Amendment Act that was signed into law by President Bush in 2008. This act expanded the government’s authority to monitor Americans’ electronic communications. A major issue about this act that was argued in this article is that the Act allows the government to conduct surveillance without probable cause. It permits the government to monitor people who aren’t suspected of doing anything wrong, and to do so without warrants or meaningful review by impartial judges (ACLU, 2013).
If surveillance can be used for good and prevention of catastrophe, then in the wrong hands, can’t it also be used for bad? Sure, but if you ask me, maybe they should keep the children out of it.
By: Tanisha Lazarre
ACLU., 2013. Documents Confirm How the NSA’s Surveillance Procedures Threaten Americans’ Privacy. American Civil Liberties Union. Available at: https://www.aclu.org/fact-sheet/documents-confirm-how-nsas-surveillance-procedures-threaten-americans-privacy [Accessed December 8, 2016].
Fuchs, C., 2012. Political Economy and Surveillance Theory. Critical Sociology, 39(5), pp.671–687. Available at: http://fuchs.uti.at/wp-content/MarxSurveillance.pdf
Picchi, A., 2016. My Friend Cayla: Your kid’s toy could spy on your family. CBSNews. Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/your-kids-toys-could-be-spying-on-your-family/ [Accessed December 8, 2016].
Wells, G., 2016. Talking Dolls May Spread Children’s Secrets, Privacy Groups Allege. The Wall Street Journal. Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/two-talking-dolls-collect-personal-information-from-children-privacy-groups-allege-1481000822 [Accessed December 8, 2016].