Just when you think the surveillance state has reached the apex of creepiness, this happens. Consumer groups say that two toys made by Genesis Toys are spying on your kids–and that’s not all.
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.
As if that’s not enough, it gets worse.
…the watchdogs allege that they upload the recordings to Nuance Communications, a voice technology company that has military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies as clients.
Remember Nuance? They were responsible for Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the speech-to-text engine that quickly became the gold standard. What would they possibly want with a voiceprint of your kids? You guessed it.
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.
It always goes back to this, doesn’t it? Now watch the dancing by Nuance.
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.
Let’s parse that out.
“Doesn’t sell or use the voice data it collects for marketing or advertising purposes.”
Well, that’s a true statement. The government clients of Nuance have no interest in marketing or advertising, and Nuance never says they aren’t using the data for surveillance purposes. Keep in mind that one tactic of deception is to deny something that has not been accused, while not answering the actual accusation. That’s what they’re doing here. They do not address the actual thing they are accused of doing–namely, using the voice data of your kids (and you) to improve products they’re selling to the government, such as a database of voiceprints for ‘identifying criminals.’ They do not address the surveillance actions. They create a wholly new accusation (marketing and advertising) and deny that.
“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.”
They claim they learned about consumer advocacy groups’ concerns “through media,” and that they “validated that we have adhered to our policy” but take note: They have already told you, through omission, that they do use the voice data collected to improve surveillance products for the government and military. Therefore, we already know what their “policy” is, because they have told us. Now they clarify that further:
“with respect to the voice data collected through the toys referred to in the complaint.”
As opposed to…? The other voice data collected in other products (such as Dragon personal assistant for Android)? Such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking? This sentence is another omission. Let’s look at it in context again. They’re also by default admitting that there are other places where they do NOT adhere to their ‘policy.’
“we validated that we have adhered to our policy with respect to the voice data collected through the toys referred to in the complaint.” The word “with” signifies distance. The shortest sentence is generally the least sensitive and most likely to be true. He takes an incredibly large number of words to say, “No, we did not use the voice data for surveillance,” or “No, we did not give our voice data to the government.” In fact, look again. He never says that at all. He does say that they “share voice data collected from or on behalf of any of our customers with any of our other customers.” Before you look at that as a solid denial, let me point out one thing. What’s the definition of sharing? Even in a digital technology context, it means “
As further proof of this, take a look at his previous statement. They do not use the voice data for marketing or advertising purposes. Now take a look at one of the dolls’ features:
“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.”
Is he lying? Not at all. The doll is absolutely a marketing and advertising tool, but they are not using the voice data for that particular function. Therefore, he is giving a truthful statement—but he is not telling the whole truth. He is still being deceptive, and the loser in this game is always, will always, be you and your family’s privacy.
The surveillance state is real. It is in your home, it is in your kids’ toys. If you buy your kids Christmas presents, think before purchasing something that interacts with your child. You may be buying way more than you bargained for.