Amazon, Walmart urged to stop selling "spying" doll

Consumer advocates are pressing retailers including Amazon.com (AMZN) and Walmart (WMT) to stop selling a doll that can eavesdrop on children and families.

The groups are asking the retailers to discontinue sales of the doll My Friend Cayla following a complaint they filed earlier this month with the Federal Trade Commission. The complaint alleges the doll and another toy, which isn’t sold in the U.S., can send recordings to Nuance Communications (NUAN). The speech-to-text software company has contracts with military and law enforcement agencies, among other customers.

The doll, made by interactive toy maker Genesis, are no laughing matter, according to the consumer privacy advocates, who say that these and other wireless-enabled devices can open the door to hackers, privacy violations and other unsavory behavior. In the case of My Friend Cayla, the doll is programmed to respond to a child’s questions; it uses equipment including a Bluetooth microphone and a mobile application, which requests access to the parents’ or child’s devices, such as its hardware, storage and Wi-Fi connections. 

“My Friend Cayla poses significant security risks that could place children in physical danger,” Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Genesis fails to require basic authentication mechanisms to prevent unauthorized Bluetooth connections between the doll and a smartphone or tablet.”

He added, “As a result, a stranger or potential predator within a 50-foot range can easily establish a Bluetooth connection with the doll, eavesdrop on the child, and even converse with the child through the doll.”

A similar letter, also signed by the Center for Digital Democracy and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), were also sent to Walmart, Target (TGT) and Toys ‘R’ Us. Toys R Us said the doll is no longer for sale at its stores or through its website. 

Claire Gartland, who directs the Consumer Privacy Project at EPIC, told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this month that the toys “normalize surveillance to young children,” teaching them that it’s not unusual to have a trusted toy recording their conversations and relaying their words to corporations.  

My Friend Cayla, which costs $59.93 at Walmart, is described as “a wonderful choice for a young child who needs a companion.” Customers who reviewed the doll on the retailer’s site give it an average of four stars out of five. Complaints tend to focus on issues such as the quality of the doll’s construction, rather than privacy concerns. 

Retailers in Europe that have pulled My Friend Cayla and another toy made by Genesis, a robot called i-Que, include Jollyroom and Amazon Spain, while others such as Top-Toy are offering refunds, the consumer advocacy groups said in the letter. 

“When companies collect personal information from children, they incur serious legal obligations to protect children’s privacy,” the letter said. “It is incumbent upon retailers like Amazon to act swiftly to ensure these harms are mitigated to the greatest extent possible.”