Hello Barbie: Is the Internet-connected doll every parent’s worst nightmare?

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Barbie is back — but she isn’t the same old doll children have been playing with for generations (and maybe we should have seen this coming?).

Mattel has given Barbie a whole new type of makeover — ‘Hello Barbie’ is an Internet-connected interactive doll that will be able to have real, two-way conversations with children. Expected to retail for $74.99, more than four times the price of regular Barbie, Hello Barbie will have a microphone and speaker hidden in her new trendy jewelry. Then a free smartphone app will connect her to the Internet through your home Wi-Fi network.

Barbie sales were down 16% in the first six months of this year, and in an effort to turn things around, Mattel worked with tech company ToyTalk to create the new doll just in time for the holiday season.

How Hello Barbie works

No need for children to use their imaginations anymore. Hello Barbie will have a data bank of built-in, pre-programmed responses to common questions, and she will use Wi-Fi and voice recognition software to send children’s questions over the Internet to ToyTalk’s servers — where responses will be chosen from thousands of pre-recorded options. Parents will be able to control what Barbie says — by accessing and choosing from the more than 8,000 pre-recorded lines via their online account.

And that’s not all — Hello Barbie has a few more tricks up her sleeve. The new doll will record all conversations between her and the child, and then those conversations will be sent over the Internet to ToyTalk’s servers, where they’ll be stored in the cloud and used anonymously by the company to create more pre-recorded response options.

Ever wondered what your kid was saying to his or her toys during all of those hours of playing? Well, parents will be able to access their kids’ conversations with Hello Barbie online. Plus, they’ll have the option to share those convos on social media or delete them from ToyTalk’s database.

Read more: 13 ways you may be exposing yourself to fraud

Barbie + Internet of Things

Internet of Things: everyday objects that connect to the Internet and have the ability to send and receive data. These days, it seems like pretty much everything fits into that description — smart watches, thermostats, cars, TVs, medical devices — the list could go on. According to GovTech.com, there are currently about 5 billion Internet of Things products, and that number is expected to jump to 25 billion (worldwide) by 2020.

There’s no doubt that this constant connectivity across devices has made many aspects of everyday life easier (think using your smartphone to turn on your A.C. on the way home on a hot summer day), but is it safe?

According to security teams at Symantec, more than 317 million new pieces of malware — computer viruses or other malicious software — were created in 2014. That’s nearly one million new threats per day. And these types of threats are happening across all different industries — Fiat Chrysler recently recalled 1.4 million vehicles over a potential threat related to an Internet-connected feature installed in many of the company’s models.


Can Barbie be trusted?

In the midst of so many Internet-related threats and breaches, will Barbie be able to keep the hackers out? That’s the plan…

The folks at PCMag talked to the makers of the doll and concluded that they have Hello Barbie ‘locked down pat’ — in part by making parents the real gatekeepers, requiring passwords to access both the data and the doll. Plus, Hello Barbie will use an encryption security feature to protect consumers’ privacy and security when communications are sent over the Internet. She also has a security system installed to protect her from the installation of malware while she’s being recharged (which she’ll need after about an hour of use — talking tires her out, too).

Privacy issues

Even if parents can keep the hackers out, they can’t keep the toy makers from listening to their kids’ conversations. According to Hello Barbie’s privacy policy, those recordings she stores online for parents to access and for the company to craft more responses — well, that’s not all that data will be used for. The policy says the data in the recordings can also be used for other research and development and data purposes. It also says the information can be shared with third parties.

How to protect against any device’s vulnerabilities

Aside from Hello Barbie’s potential privacy concerns, there are still some security steps parents need to take in order to protect their children and their personal information.

  • Since Hello Barbie uses Wi-Fi, make sure she only connects to a secure network. She requires a password-protected signal, but make sure she doesn’t connect to a network with an easy-to-hack password.
  • Make sure the password to your home Wi-Fi network is strong.
  • Use a strong password to access the files on the ToyTalk database — this will help prevent hackers from gaining access to the account.

Read more: Protect your devices with Clark’s virus, spyware and malware protection guide

One very important thing to consider is how much information is connected through your home Wi-Fi network. If you’re connected via smartphone, laptop, desktop, tablet etc., one vulnerability could expose information stored in all connected devices to hackers. So if your laptop and Hello Barbie are connected to the same network, and hackers get into one device, they will likely be able to access information tied to both devices. This is why being cautious and using strong passwords are crucial to your security and privacy.

If you’re planning to grab one of the first Hello Barbies, make sure to do so with these precautions in mind. And if you can wait, it may be better to hold off until they get the kinks out — which is typically your best bet with new technology anyway.

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