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Wi-fi Barbie doll raises privacy, hacking concerns in U.S.

The "Hello Barbie" doll. (Image from Mattel Inc.'s website)

WASHINGTON -- An artificial intelligence (AI) controlled Barbie doll sold by major American toy company Mattel Inc. has become the center of controversy over the doll's alleged collection of personal information and vulnerability to hacking.

    The new doll "Hello Barbie" went on sale in November. Using wireless Internet connections, the doll can send its owner's voice across the Internet to a server cloud where AI examines the contents, chooses an appropriate response and sends it back, which the doll then speaks.

    While the doll may grant the wishes of children who wanted to "talk with Barbie," at almost the same time as the doll went on sale the consumer group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood called for a boycott. The group alleges that owners' personal information is collected by the doll, and that the doll's conversations with children could be used to advertise products to them.

    Furthermore, a hacker told an American TV station that they had easily hacked into the doll, and warned that one could even access the wireless network of a house where the doll is present.

    ToyTalk, Inc., a U.S. company that manages the AI that drives the doll's conversations, has defended it, saying that conversation data is collected in order to improve the quality of the doll's conversations. The company also says the data collected by the doll is encrypted and there have been no instances of children's voice data being accessed by hackers. It also claims that the data is not used for advertising purposes.

    Still, ToyTalk says that no technology is perfect, and parents' concerns about the possibility of the doll being hacked don't look like they will go away any time soon. Though a toy, Hello Barbie has raised questions about how our privacy and safety can co-exist with what is an increasingly Internet-connected world.

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