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These dolls are spying on your kids, consumer groups say

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Can that new doll or toy robot you bought as a Christmas gift for your child spy on your family?

A group of consumer watchdogs say that a pair of items made by Genesis Toys records conversations, and the watchdogs alleges that they upload the recordings to Nuance Communications, a voice technology company that has military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies as clients.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), along with the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and Consumers Union have filed a complaint (PDF) with the Federal Trade Commission over the My Friend Cayla doll and the i-Que robot. EPIC and the other consumer watchdogs claim the “toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance” and violate privacy and consumer protection laws.

“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,” the complaint says.

Genesis didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

Recordings uploaded

The doll and robot are internet-connected toys that children can talk and interact with. When children ask the toys a question, the words are recorded and converted to text so answers can be retrieved from Google, Wikipedia and Weather Underground. These recorded words, phrases and conversations are also uploaded to Nuance, a voice technology.

The consumer groups allege that Nuance uses the recordings to improve the products it sells to military, government and law enforcement agencies. One particular product, Nuance Identifier, helps security officials search millions of recordings and identify criminals by the sound of their voices.

Richard Mack, Nuance’s vice president of corporate marketing and communications, said his company doesn’t sell or use the voice data it collects for marketing or advertising purposes.

“Upon learning of the consumer advocacy groups’ concerns through media, we validated that we have adhered to our policy with respect to the voice data collected through the toys referred to in the complaint,” Mack wrote in a blog post on the company’s website. “Nuance does not share voice data collected from or on behalf of any of our customers with any of our other customers.

Mack said Nuance hasn’t received an inquiry from the FTC but would “respond appropriately” if it did.

Product placements

The consumer watchdogs claim in the complaint that Genesis’ My Friend Cayla doll subjects young children to Disney product placements.

“My Friend Cayla is pre-programmed with dozens of phrases that reference Disneyworld and Disney movies,” the complaint reads. “For example, Cayla tells children that her favorite movie is Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ and her favorite song is ‘Let it Go,’ from Disney’s ‘Frozen.’ Cayla also tells children she loves going to Disneyland and wants to go to Epcot in Disneyworld.”

It’s hard for kids to recognize this as advertising, the groups say.

The Cayla doll also has a mobile phone app that asks children to provide personal information, like their name and their parents’ names, their favorite TV show, their favorite meal, where they go to school, their favorite toy and where they live.

The watchdog groups want the FTC to launch an investigation into Genesis and Nuance and have the toys removed from store shelves.

“The FTC should issue a recall on the dolls and halt further sales pending the resolution of the privacy and safety risks identified in the complaint,” said Claire Gartland, director of EPIC’s Consumer Privacy Project. “This is already happening in the European Union, where Dutch stores have pulled the toys from their shelves.”