October 3, 2017 – Surveillance Barbie and Dual-Use Technology

Okay, so you all know I am a real technophile.  With the Pixel 2 coming out tomorrow, the new facial recognition in the iPhone X, the new AMD CPUs coming out and the ongoing Raspberry Pi challenges, I get really excited with new and emerging technology.  However, all technology is what I refer to as “dual-use”, meaning you can use it for good or for evil purposes, and, unfortunately, too many technologists today are far too optimistic in their beliefs in how people will use the technology, believing that people will always use technology for the purposes it was intended.  As a result, we see a lot of new apps, gadgets and toys (yes, toys) that come back to bite us.

One interesting case came up during my research recently, where I discovered two applications (one for the web, and one for PCs) that were developed to help aggregate data from sources for people, but ended up being remarkable tools for stalking people.  The first, an application called “cree.py” lets you plug in to Flikr, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media tools to search for posts, pictures, etc., by location…or by person.  If searching by location, you can find all of the pictures and posts taken in a certain location, say Ireland, and see them from the spot where they were uploaded.  If searching by person, however, you can see all of that person’s posts and pictures from the spot they uploaded them, giving you a map of that person’s travels.  A second tool, StalkScan is a website that allows you to put in a person’s Facebook page and see a TON of data about that person, all in one convenient package.

While those tools are somewhat disturbing, as adults, we have some control as to what we share and how we use technology.  The more difficult questions start to arise when we look at the growth of connected children’s toys.  Toys, like “Hello Barbie” (aka Surveillance Barbie) and others are starting to use artificial intelligence, such as IBM’s Watson to interact with children with a goal of being a “smart toy” that can help them learn.  Unfortunately, their use has already been abused, resulting in a number of incidents where recorded messages from parents to their children have been compromised and basic location and other data have been leaked.  Additionally, some of these toys have been programmed to log and alert when phrases and words that can be associated with child abuse are heard.  Hello Barbie even markets the fact that it records and stores conversations with your child with the idea that parents can use this to monitor their children’s conversations without their knowledge.  While it is in all of our interests to protect children from abuse, it raises some serious concerns about unwarranted eavesdropping and holds the potential for exploitation.  The scariest part, however, is some of the advertising of these toys…to children.  This toy, named “Smart Toy” by Fischer Price, is a popular seller because of their marketing to kids.  If you click on the link and then click on the audio under any of the three toys, your kids get a not-so-subtle sales pitch designed to pressure parents into purchasing one.

In the end, though, between Alexa, Google Home, connected toys, smart televisions and so on, we are rapidly trading our privacy for shiny technical objects.  Maybe, just maybe, we should take a step back and not rush to be the early adopter of some of these new gadgets…of course, I still want the new Pixel…

Have a great day!

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