A number of tech companies have launched virtual home assistants. These voice-activated devices function as virtual assistants, doing everything from playing music to answering questions to ordering goods and services for you.
These devices have already raised a number of concerns about privacy. In order to function properly, they’re “always listening,” meaning they are waiting for their wake word to activate them. They begin recording your voice at the first hint that you’ve said the wake word and can store your voice recordings and report those back to the company’s servers. The companies themselves are also using your interaction with your device to tailor it to your preferences, improve the product, suggest new purchases, and more.
Essentially, users have had to decide if knowingly giving up a little privacy is worth the increased convenience. From the sales figures for these devices, it appears that many customers have decided yes, it’s worth it.
After unveiling its connected device and spending significant amounts of money on the product, one electronics manufacturer has decided to pull the plug on its own virtual assistant. Mattel, known around the world for children’s toys and electronics, was slated to launch a kids’ version of these devices called Aristotle. The intention was that the device itself would interact with your children, while also serving parents as an electronic monitoring system and shopping service.
Aristotle could read stories, sing songs, alert you to deals and specials on diapers, and more. If it sensed the baby crying, it would play a soothing song or turn the lights on low to calm the child before parents had to intervene. Its installed camera could let you watch your children from your smartphone or another mobile device over Wi-Fi. Some review sites had even referred to Mattel’s new product as a “virtual babysitter,” allowing you to monitor your children when you weren’t there.
The alarm bells are deafening. Mattel has already had a brush with cybersecurity doom in its interactive Hello Barbie that allowed hackers to access the doll’s microphone, stored account settings, and more. In light of the potential harm from hackers who could access the child-centric AI device and the misperception that Aristotle will watch your kids while you go out for the evening, Mattel has now ended the product and will not be releasing it.
This is good news to privacy advocates and parenting experts. “Young children shouldn’t be encouraged to form bonds and friendships with data collecting devices,” the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood wrote in a letter to Mattel. “Aristotle will make sensitive information about children available for countless third parties, leaving kids and families vulnerable to marketers, hackers, and other malicious actors. Aristotle also attempts to replace the care, judgment, and companionship of loving family members with faux nurturing and conversation from a robot designed to sell products and build brand loyalty.”
It’s important to know that Mattel has broken the mold here: the decision to cancel an expensive product before releasing it demonstrates the kind of forward thinking that isn’t always in place when it comes to cybersecurity. Too often, a device or platform is launched and then repeatedly “patched” as more and more security flaws are discovered. By then, the damage has been done. To the toymaker’s credit, the company looked at the potential privacy pitfalls and decided not to release a risky device.