The latest generation of chatbot toys listen to your kids 24/7 and send their speech to a military contractor

Last year's Hello Barbie chatbot toy sent all your kid's speech to cloud servers operated by Mattel and its tech partner, but only when your kid held down Barbie's listen button -- new chatbot toys like My Friend Cayla and the i-Que Intelligent Robot are in constant listening mode -- as is your "OK Google" enabled phone, your Alexa-enabled home mic, and your Siri-enabled Ios device -- and everything that is uttered in mic range is transmitted to Nuance, a company that makes text-to-speech tech (you probably know them through their Dragon-branded tools), and contracts to the US military.

In a new FTC complaint filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), and Consumers Union argues that the toys license-agreements and cloud-based listening violate a variety of laws, especially laws protecting children from online data-collection. The way that the manufacturers try to finesse this is really laughable -- as in I snorted aloud when I read it.

Even worse: these Terms are subject to change without notice, the complaint continues. It quotes the privacy policy for both toys (Cayla, i-Queue) as reading, “This Privacy Statement may be updated from time to time, so you may wish to check it each time you submit personal information to us.” Which, yes, would be basically every single time anyone says something in the toy’s hearing range.

It also says “you should look at the website regularly to check,” if anything has been updated which, as the complaint points out, is pretty useless when the terms of service aren’t viewable on the website to begin with.

Even if you can by some miracle read the terms of service, the complaint points out, it’s still not in line with what COPPA actually requires.

The app does specify that “as required by law, parental approval is required for the download of the App by any persons who are under 13 years old.”

Complaint and Request for Investigation, Injunction, and Other Relief Submitted by The Electronic Privacy Information Center The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood The Center for Digital Democracy Consumers Union [PDF]

These Toys Don’t Just Listen To Your Kid; They Send What They Hear To A Defense Contractor [Kate Cox/Consumerist]

Notable Replies

  1. "Sir, we've got an update on how poopy Cindy's little brother is. And also she likes Brandon and not Steven now." ~ NSA Headquarters

  2. Yeah, except "constant listening" doesn't work this way. The reason things like "OK Google", "Hey Siri", "Xbox On" and so-on can work is not because the device is constantly sending everything you say up to some mysterious government entity, but instead because the device when in a low power mode has a special handling mode for a specific sequence of phonemes to make it "wake up" and perform further processing.

    Think about it. If a device was constantly listening, processing, and streaming all audio data around you, your battery would be dead within hours if that not to mention the amount of additional network overhead this would cause.

    I am not even going to touch how disingenuous the whole "military contractor" thing is. (ETA I guess I touched it in my subsequent post. My bad.)

    Look, I completely get and understand the crux of this article about privacy, data retention, COPPA violations, uninformed parental consent, what happens to speech data, and so on. This is something important to discuss. You know what isn't constructive? FUD about how these devices are eavesdropping on everything you do in your home and sending it to the government contractor.

  3. Disingenuous use of "contractor" to increase the scare factor?

    Spells "i-Que" how the company brands it, but goes with "Ios" to put a finger in Apple's eye?

    Keep on bein' Cory!

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