'Hell No Barbie' campaign targets Hello Barbie over privacy concerns

Hello Barbie is now on the market. Her added accessory is a showstopper — she can make real conversation. But an advocacy group is launching a "Hell No Barbie" campaign, claiming the doll is a privacy risk.

Advocacy group wants to silence new high-tech Barbie that can talk back

Hello Barbie can make conversation, using voice recognition technology to provide tailored responses to your child. (Mattel)

Hello Barbie, an interactive doll with artificial intelligence, has made her big debut. She's now available for pre-order online in the U.S., just in time for the lucrative Christmas shopping season. 

This Barbie's added accessory is a showstopper — she can make real conversation.

But an American advocacy group wants to silence the chatty doll, claiming Hello Barbie may be a corporate spy that could jeopardize children's privacy.

Next week, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) plans to launch a "Hell No Barbie" campaign on social media and its website, warning parents and children to keep their distance from the doll.

"This is kind of the perfect storm of a bad toy," said Josh Golin, the group's executive director.

His organization argues the Wi-Fi connected doll — which is equipped with a tiny microphone — could act as a double agent, passing on personal information shared by your child for marketing research or nefarious purposes.

Some parents are also suspicious of the toy. "Hello Barbie is pretty creepy and it would not be welcome in our house," said Windsor, Ont., parent Mindy Terrington.

Can Barbie keep a secret?
Hello Barbie is now available for pre-order online at U.S. stores including Walmart and Toys 'R' Us. (Mattel)

Hello Barbie makes conversation using voice recognition technology.

When her microphone is turned on, the doll records its playmate's voice. The child's dialogue then travels over the internet to a server, which interprets it so Barbie can give a tailored, pre-recorded response. It's similar to the way Apple's interactive Siri works.

"Hello Barbie can interact uniquely with each child … sharing stories and even telling jokes!" explains the toymaker Mattel in an online ad.

Golin and his co-campaigners worry about hackers infiltrating children's dialogue, which will be stored on a server. They also dislike that the recorded conversations will be monitored at times to improve the system.

"Having people listen to recordings [of children] talking intimately to a doll raises a whole host of questions," said Golin.

A big concern is that information gleaned from conversations might be used for marketing purposes.

"Clearly this is going to be a trove of valuable information when you have a child talking perhaps for hours with a doll," said Golin.

He also worries that Hello Barbie could be programmed to push products. "Mattel may be cutting deals for what products the doll is talking about," he said.

Companies talk back

U.S.-based Mattel is adamant that Hello Barbie will not be used for any kind of advertising or marketing purposes and lays this out in an online "privacy commitment" to parents.

ToyTalk, the American company behind the doll's technology, makes the same claim.

"All parties involved are prohibited from using the data to advertise to the child," Tom Sarris, ToyTalk's head of communications, told CBC News in an email.

Sarris added that the company has made big efforts to deter hackers. "We have integrated a variety of privacy and security measures into Hello Barbie's hardware and software," he said.

He also points out that parents can listen to their children's recorded conversations and delete anything they don't want sitting on a server.

But Golin doesn't like the idea of anyone monitoring kids' playtime, including parents. "Children need that space to explore and to work out their own feelings without feeling like they're being surveilled by their parents or by a corporation," he said.

Will parents buy in?

Mattel says it's simply providing children with what they want. "The number 1 thing girls have been asking for is to have a conversation with Barbie," states a Hello Barbie video ad.

The innovative doll is also an attempt to boost slumping profits as children increasingly turn to high-tech toys and tablets. Global Barbie sales for the first 10 months of this year plummeted by 15 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Hello Barbie is supposed to hit U.S. stores next month but Mattel says it won't be available in Canada in 2015.

If and when it does comes on the Canadian market, Terrington, a mother of four kids, has no interest in buying the doll. "We have so little privacy these days with technology as it is, I can't imagine voluntarily surrendering more," she said.

But Toronto mom Danielle Rabbat believes Hello Barbie is a cool concept. She grew up as an only child and feels the doll would help only children feel less lonely. "I would have loved something like that as a kid," she said.

Rabbat feels confident Mattel wouldn't use the doll to market to children and would have no other reason to mine children's conversations.

"Who's going to listen to my kids?" she asks.

However, Rabbat's not yearning to buy the doll for either of her two young daughters — because of the price. A typical Barbie costs roughly $20 in Canada.

Hello Barbie is currently available for $74.99 US — that's almost $100 Canadian. It appears Barbie's talk doesn't come cheap.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won an Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact: