Are your children’s My Friend Cayla dolls “spying” on them? During the last holiday season, that was what an American watchdog group had alleged. But the German government’s own watchdog has observed something similar more recently, and aside from banning the doll from stores, it wants parents to destroy the doll due to its supposed ability to listen in to what their children may be saying.
In December, the Inquisitr reported on the initial My Friend Cayla spying controversy in the U.S., as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) had teamed up with several consumer organizations to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that the doll and another product from Genesis Toys, such as the I-Que Robot, have spying capabilities. Both toys use voice recognition technology in a similar vein to Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, utilizing Nuance speech-to-text software to record what children say, translate them to text, and access the internet to provide information or answer a child’s questions.
According to the U.S. organizations’ complaint, Nuance Communications has an ulterior motive with the recording capability of My Friend Cayla and the I-Que Robot – using these recordings to improve the products it sells to its military, law enforcement, and government clients. The organizations also accused both Genesis and Nuance of knowingly withholding such disclosures to consumers.
“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,” read the complaint, as quoted by CNN.
Now, new reports are stating that Germany’s Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) has banned the My Friend Cayla doll over more spying allegations, advising parents to destroy the doll due to its supposed ability to reveal personal information. According to BBC News, German government researchers have discovered that hackers can listen to the conversations between child and doll, and even speak to children by means of an unsecure Bluetooth device.
The ban was enforced through a government law forbidding espionage devices and levying fines of up to 25,000 euros on anyone who still sells or owns such devices. But due to that latter condition, the Federal Network Agency stressed that it won’t be fining parents who had previously bought Cayla for their children, or seeking to punish them for those purchases.
In a report from NPR, Federal Network Agency President Jochen Homann underscored the importance of banning My Friend Cayla for “spying” capabilities, stating that children are the “most vulnerable” members of society. He stressed that Cayla may appear like an ordinary doll, but once again, deceptively makes use of Nuance voice recognition software, with its makers not letting anyone know of this functionality.
In lieu of penalizing parents for buying their children the doll, the German Federal Network Agency said in a statement that it will leave the responsibility of “making the doll harmless (to children)” to the kids’ parents, which translates to destroying the doll if possible. This got the agency some criticism from the European Consumer Organization, which was in favor of the ban, but skeptical about the recommendation that parents destroy the Cayla doll.
Aside from the above allegations, there have also been claims that My Friend Cayla doesn’t just spy, but also stealthily convinces children to endorse certain companies. According to NPR‘s report, Norway’s Consumer Council observed that Cayla tends to talk about “how much she loves different Disney movies,” which is interesting, as Disney is among Nuance Communication’s clients.
In the above video, Norway Consumer Council technical director Finn Myrstad attempted communicating with both the My Friend Cayla doll and the I-Que Robot, tellingly asking Cayla if he can trust her, to which the doll answered “I don’t know.” He added that use of the doll allegedly gives Nuance automatic permission to use the recordings for targeted advertising, and carte blanche to share the recordings to just about any third-party company.
Meanwhile, the UK Toy Retailers Association (TRA) issued a brief statement to BBC, defending the My Friend Cayla doll from the new spying allegations. According to the TRA, the doll “offers no special risk,” and there is “no reason for alarm” when it comes to the toy’s popularity among children and their parents.
[Featured Image by Rob Stothard/Getty Images]