Mattel gadget listens to babies, setting off privacy alarms

In this Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, photo, the Mattel Inc. campus is seen in El Segundo, Calif. Mysterious cyber-thieves tricked Mattel into wiring over $3 million to a bank in China. The funds were swept up in a tide of dirty money that passes through China, which is emerging as global money laundering hub. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Toymaker Mattel has announced plans to sell a nursery gadget that will listen to infants and watch over them, record their sleep patterns, and even play a lullaby should they awaken.

Put another way: It eavesdrops on kids.

Skeptics are asking if the device, similar to Amazon.com’s Echo with its Alexa voice assistant, will violate children’s privacy and deepen a trend of surrendering intimate human connections to technology that talks and listens.

“The kid tech industry sees kids’ bedroom as an economic bonanza,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based policy group that advocates for privacy protections. “They can get all kinds of profile information -- the kid likes to eat this kind of food, the kid likes to listen to this kind of music, and we’ll have this kind of information that we can share with partners and advertisers.”

The toymaker announced Aristotle in January as a “connected kids room platform.” The device includes a speaker, camera and lights. It’s powered by processors from Qualcomm and uses programming from Microsoft to collect crib-side data and respond to a baby’s needs.

Aristotle can be programmed to launch into a lullaby, emit white noise, or turn on a night light to soothe a waking baby back to sleep. The monitor sends data on nap times and diaper changes to a corresponding smartphone app and, with permission, uploads it to the cloud.

The device can help purchase diapers, reinforce good manners in kids (by requiring the word “please” in voice commands) and even help kids learn a foreign language, the company said in a press release.

Aristotle was to be introduced at retail in the summer with a recommended price of $299, according to Mattel’s January news release. The product didn’t turn up in a search of Mattel’s shopping website on Thursday and the company hasn’t said when it will be available or if it’s been delayed.

Alex Clark, a spokesman for Mattel, said in an email the company is “committed to ensuring every product we make meets or exceeds all applicable laws and regulations, including connected products intended for children’s use.”

Aristotle wasn’t designed to store or record audio or video, Clark said. No third parties will have access to any personally-identifiable information, and any data shared is entirely anonymous and fully encrypted, he said.

The trend toward talking, listening machines is accelerating. Amazon, girding for competition from Apple and Google in the race to equip homes with smart devices, this week unveiled a slew of consumer gadgets including an Alexa-powered digital-home hub and a smaller and cheaper Echo speaker.

Mattel is investing in internet-connected toys under a new leader recruited from Google.

“Alexa and Echo have prepared us to say this is OK -- to see something that’s actually quite shocking as OK,” Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview.

She called Aristotle’s lullaby capability “exactly the wrong thing for a computer to be doing,” because the machine can’t provide the comfort a human would.

In Congress, two lawmakers in a letter Thursday asked Mattel for details on how Aristotle will gather and store information.

“It appears that never before has a device had the capability to so intimately look into the life of a child,” Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, said in the letter.

“Consumers should know how this product will work, and what measures Mattel will take to protect families’ privacy and secure their data,” the lawmakers wrote. Their questions included whether Aristotle will always be on to record children, and how Mattel will store and protect the information.

Mattel is “carefully reviewing” the letter, said Clark, the company spokesman.

The El Segundo, California-based toymaker in its announcement of the product said it paid “special attention” to federal law that requires websites and apps targeted at children to gain parental consent to collect and use children’s personal information.

But Chester, with the Center for Digital Democracy, said the law doesn’t protect children once parents give permission.

Mattel Chief Executive Officer Margo Georgiadis, hired from Alphabet Inc.’s Google early this year, has laid out a vision for the 72-year-old company that puts more emphasis on internet-connected devices over traditional toys.

This mission has taken on new urgency as interest appears to be waning in once-powerful brands such as Thomas and American Girl. Shares have dropped by more than 40 percent this year.

But electronics come with implications far beyond selling wooden train sets or dress-up dolls.

“A young child’s bedroom should not be a place for corporate surveillance and data-gathering,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood policy group.

Bloomberg’s Matt Townsend contributed.