Securing Sexuality is the podcast and conference promoting sex positive, science based, and secure interpersonal relationships. We give people tips for safer sex in a digital age. We help sextech innovators and toy designers produce safer products. And we educate mental health and medical professionals on these topics so they can better advise their clients. Securing Sexuality provides sex therapists with continuing education (CEs) for AASECT, SSTAR, and SASH around cyber sexuality and social media, and more.
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Exploring the Controversy: Tech-Enabled Barbies and Privacy Concerns
Technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, with almost everything around us seeming connected to the internet. This trend has also extended to the world of toys, with tech-enabled toys becoming increasingly popular. The iconic doll Barbie has been a staple in children's playrooms for decades. We explore the risks and benefits of tech-enabled toys, using Barbie's journey as a case study.
The Rise of Tech-Enabled Toys:
Toy manufacturers have embraced digital features in their products. They offer a range of interactive experiences. Barbie, a brand synonymous with innovation, introduced various tech-enabled doll versions over the years.
The Risks of Tech-Enabled Toys:
While tech-enabled toys have their merits, they also come with their fair share of risks. One primary concern is the potential for privacy breaches. Many tech-enabled toys collect and store personal data, including voice recordings and location information.
This data can be vulnerable to hackers, raising concerns about the safety and security of children's information. Another risk associated with tech-enabled toys is the potential impact on children's cognitive development. Some critics argue that these toys may hinder creativity and imagination, and excessive screen time can adversely affect children's physical and mental health.
Barbie's Controversial Journey:
Barbie, a cultural icon since 1959, has not been immune to controversy. In 2015, Mattel introduced "Hello Barbie," a doll with speech recognition software. This feature allowed the doll to interact with children, responding to questions and comments.
Critics argued that the doll's ability to record and transmit conversations raised serious ethical and safety issues. In response to the controversy, Mattel implemented measures to address privacy concerns, including increased data encryption and transparency about data collection practices. However, the incident highlighted the importance of carefully considering the risks associated with tech-enabled toys, especially regarding children's privacy.
The Benefits of Tech-Enabled Toys:
Despite the risks, tech-enabled toys also offer several benefits. These toys can enhance learning experiences, providing interactive educational content that can supplement traditional teaching methods. For instance, some tech-enabled Barbie dolls have coding capabilities, introducing children to playfully and engaging basic programming concepts.
High-tech toys can foster interest in STEM subjects and promote critical thinking skills. These toys offer multiplayer features, allowing children to connect with friends and engage in shared play experiences. This social aspect can help develop communication skills and promote teamwork.
The rise of tech-enabled toys has brought excitement and concern to the toy industry. While these toys offer interactive and engaging experiences, it is crucial to consider the associated risks, such as privacy breaches and potential impact on children's cognitive development. Barbie's controversial journey with tech-enabled doll versions reminds us of the need for responsible innovation in the toy industry. As technology continues to evolve, toy manufacturers must prioritize the safety and well-being of children. Striking a balance between innovation and safeguarding children's privacy is crucial to ensure that tech-enabled toys provide meaningful and enriching experiences without compromising security. By addressing these risks and leveraging the benefits, tech-enabled toys can play a positive role in children's development, opening up new avenues for learning and creativity.
Stefani Goerlich: Hello and welcome to Securing Sexuality. The podcast where we discuss the intersection of intimacy-
Wolf Goerlich: -and information security. I'm Wolf Goerlich.
Stefani: He's a hacker. And I'm Stefani Goerlich.
Wolf: She's a sex therapist. And together we're going to discuss what safe sex looks like in a digital age. So, anything in the news? Anything on your mind recently?
Stefani: Uh, I got my hair re-pinked.
Wolf: And why did you get your hair re-pinked? Other than the fact that it's one of the things you do,
Stefani: I was gonna say because it's always pink. It would be unusual if I didn't get it re-pinked.
Wolf: True. True.
Stefani: But also Barbie came out.
Wolf: Yes. Yes. And we had to go see it on the premiere night. of course. And so we were there. You were very pink. You're getting lots of compliments. But then you said something that rocked my world. This is something that I had A) I never thought I would hear. And B I never thought I would think about What did you tell me?
Stefani: Uh, we were talking after the movie and I looked at you and I said, “no Barbie is a virgin.”
Wolf: What? What? These are sweet, innocent girls playing with sweet, innocent dolls.
Stefani: They are. They are also adult-shaped dolls that girls use to reflect on and daydream about and process what it means to be an adult woman and a part of what it means to be an adult woman is for most of us, not all of us, but a good majority of us to be sexual creatures as well. And I don't know any of my friends at any point in time. That wasn't, you know, like mimicking sexy behaviours with our Barbie dolls. None of our Barbies were virgins.
Wolf: So I'm still not entirely capable of wrapping my head around that as having grown up with brothers. But, uh, bringing this to the topic of our show of this, uh, this podcast, right? This intersection between tech and intimacy. Uh, there's been a couple forays of Barbies into technology. Right? Um I think first of, like, video girl Barbie, which had a shout out she was in there, she was in the movie. I remember, I saw.
Stefani: She was, briefly, and they did acknowledge that she was terribly designed, that perhaps living with a video camera embedded in your sternum would not be a girl's dream reality.
Wolf: Well, it was supposed to be a necklace. It was strategically positioned. So the video girl bar, we had this necklace that was a camera and then had an LCD screen on the back. And I guess the idea was wow, I don't know. Um, Cam Girls, I don't know what…
Stefani: No, I don't think the idea was Cam Girls. I think it was an attempt to, you know, bring more young girls into stem and to introduce this idea that they could record and they could capture video and that they could be the directors of their lives. I mean, in theory, it was a cool concept, but, I mean, we talk a lot about safety and privacy and privacy messaging in families on this podcast, and it was certainly a fail in application.
Wolf: But I do like the theory. I mean, it wasn't the best of cameras. I think it had a 320 by 240 resolution. Uh, it had, uh, like 256MB of storage. Um, it had a pretty short battery life. But I remember when my daughter was young. She had her camera and she was always, you know, taking little snippets of this or playing with, um, playing with software like Alice to, you know, build a virtual world and a virtual movie. So, I, I like the general idea of it. I think, yeah, let's let people be the director of their lives. But then I remember what you're saying about what girls were doing with Barbies. Does that create a problem if they are playing with what is effectively a camera and a microphone on a doll?
Stefani: So I mean, uh, the obvious answer is yes, right, because it is a really natural developmental thing for kids to do to kind of use the tools of childhood to process the emerging adulthood that they're transitioning into, so the actual, you know, sort of like the role play or the imagination play of Barbie and Ken or, you know, Barbie and Midge - Barbie is a very sexually fluid creature. This is not a statement endorsed by Mattel. I should say this is anecdotal based on, um, my experiences being and being friends with young girls. So this is not Mattel endorse. But, I mean, it does present some problems no matter how they're playing with their toys, right? Because whether they are acting out, um, situations that they've seen on TV or that they've experienced, um what with their or watching their parents kiss and hug? Nothing beyond that. Guys don't go there. But you know whether they're doing the toys as tools processing that we think about when my colleagues talk about play therapy, even if they're just very innocently playing out. You know, Barbie goes to the ice cream shop. We're still going to have a piece of technology that is recording these Children's interactions that they probably are not super conversant in using. I mean, they definitely opens the doors to some potential problems. And that was part of why, uh, that Barbie had the backlash that it did.
Wolf: Well, I think part of the reason it had the backlash it did was because of the media, though, you know, So the doubt comes out. Lots of people are getting it. From what I can tell, you know, around that time, people are like, Oh, this is this is a thing. Sure. I would love my my daughter to have a have a camera. Yeah. Let let let's let her be a director. Uh, then the FBI had issued an alert to law enforcement. And if you look at the alert, I was trying to find it for the show notes. Um, but I've only found, uh, snippets of it. If you're listening to this and you're like, I've got the alert. Please do send it in. But from what I could tell, um, they were simply saying, Look, uh, when you are at a crime scene, be aware of video girl Barbie because video girl Barbie is a camera and that may have evidence that was effectively it, and it was the FBI talking to the FBI and to law enforcement. And then that hit the media. And I don't know, maybe it was a slow day or what, but, uh, it became Oh, my goodness, The FBI is warning us not to give these toys to little girls.
Stefani: Yeah, and we see that a lot with a lot of things, right, Like something that is presented as a hypothetical use of technology And that is the conversation again, that you and I have a lot here. Hypothetical uses of technology. Um, once we start talking about kids, things tend to go from the hyper, you know, the hypothetical to the hyper-aware and the hyper-vigilant really fast and I think you're right there. I mean, it wasn't that we saw people reporting problems with video Barbie. We just saw a sort of general… Hey, this is a thing that if you are inventorying a crime scene, you might want to catalog. And that turned into a whole big thing that eventually got video Barbie discontinued.
Wolf: This is one of the, uh, aspects of life that oftentimes get cybersecurity professionals into trouble because there are so many things that could go wrong and so many things that are exciting to talk about. And so many things that hit the news are like, ah, scared of the moment. Uh, that it is. It is tempting to be like, Don't do that. Don't get a Barbie. Oh, my goodness. Um, you know the FBI worried about that, or it's attempting to really overreact to these things. Uh, and so one of the litmus tests I always have for any of these types of concerns is as follows. Um, great anecdote. Great story. How often does this happen and what's been the impact? And you're right. From what I could tell, it never actually happened. Wasn't a great camera, wasn't maybe necessarily great placement, uh, but also didn't happen insofar as anyone was able to find.
Stefani: But, I mean, that's not the first or only time that my girl Barbie has encountered some backlash around things. And sometimes it is a little bit more problematic than a hypothetical use that people latch on to and go crazy about, um, the one that I always think of the cringiest one for me as somebody that is both an ardent feminist and a diehard Barbie fan is computer engineer Barbie who actually was a really cool doll that came with a really bad book.
Wolf: Yeah, you know, And yes, the book is horrible. We'll get to it. But one of the things that struck me from our conversation - Speaking of books, so next week's episode is with the CEO of Steamy Lit and the founder of Stimulate Con. Uh, listener, if you haven't heard that I definitely encourage you to check it out from our back catalog. [Episode 46] Uh, but she was talking about representation, and she was talking about, uh, writers who are writing different characters, right? And sometimes that representation has to be someone from the community, right? If you're from, uh, New York and, uh, you're writing a New York character, it's much easier than if you're from Detroit and you're writing a New York character. Uh, likewise, there are sometimes where authors can really get it right. She was saying, in a lot of ways that authors really get it right is either by spending time with that community or by doing a lot of research. And I would argue that I can be a computer engineer. Barbie's authors did not live up to either of those standards. They did not get the language right. They did not get the lingo right. Uh, they certainly did not, uh, did not involve any technical people.
Stefani: Yeah, the big issue there was the story that went along with the doll because, you know, it was theoretically very empowering. But when push came to shove Barbie kind of, I'm not even gonna say delegated, because delegated makes it sound way more authoritative than it was Barbie abnegated her computer engineering skills to the guys and and just kind of watched and let them do everything. Which is not, I think, the empowering message that people, especially women in tech that might have bought this for their kids, really excitedly wanted for those Children.
Wolf: Yeah, One of the lines in the book is I'm only creating the design ideas. I'll need Steven and Brian's help to turn it into a real game.
Stefani: Ah, which is super cringy.
Wolf: You know, to be slightly fair. There are oftentimes many more women than men in some of the design portions of tech. So I sort of kind of wanna give him a little bit of an OK, but as we all know, I mean, some of the very best coders, hackers, engineers I know are women as well, So just because there may be a little bit of a stereotype isn't like breaking stereotypes kind of the whole point when you issue a Barbie.
Stefani: Yeah, and it always has been I mean, I know I get like, I've already decided. We're calling this the inevitable Barbie episode because you're right. Everybody is talking about it right now. And I guarantee you, at least a handful of folks listening to this are rolling their eyes right now that we're doing yet another Barbie thing. But Barbie has always been an innovator, and Barbie has always been a way for - especially girls, but also, you know, gender non-conforming boys or more family boys to see themselves represented and to see a variety of futures for themselves. The thing that I always love is that Barbie, Barbie's inventor, said that she would never marry Ken because Barbie came out in 1959 and that was a time when really the future for girls was getting married. Even if you went to college, the joke was, you went for your MRS degree, not your master of science degree, and so this idea that Barbie didn't get married and therefore Barbie's house was in her name. Barbie owned her house. Barbie owned her car. Barbie had a credit card before women in America could legally have a credit card in their own name. And so she has always been something that Children were intended to look towards and aspire to and to innovate and to be progressive and to represent something that might not be as visible for kids as a future for themselves. And that's part of why that was such a catastrophic fail was because it was so cool to see, you know, our pink and powerful girl leaning into STEM and then to have it turn into needing the help of the guys was really a ginormous letdown.
Wolf: I like the response, though the response in terms of mixing and remixing, Uh, specifically, I'm thinking about feminist hacker Barbie, uh, which was a site that was put up very quickly with the like, come help me fix a page, right? Pick a page, put in real dialogue. Needless to say, that got very snarky very quickly, as memes and images and remix oftentimes do out of this particular story. I like the hacker mentality of OK, yeah, I don't like that. That's not right. That's not what I want to be sharing. That's not, uh, indicative of what, uh, women in tech do. Uh, let's remix it. Let's redo it. Let's let's you know, mix and match and play and, uh, reimagine. So I really liked the response. The overwhelming the, uh, creative community response out of that one.
Stefani: Totally agree with you there. Um, we see that in a lot of different contexts last night. You know, we usually record these on Saturdays. So last night was Friday and we were at Shabbat, and you and our Rabbi and I were having a conversation about his thoughts on Barbie, and, uh, one of our friends came up to us, and I was telling her that there was an artist that had made like a Torah study Barbie that had her own Torah scroll and that had to fill in, and that had a prayer shawl. And I mean, obviously it's not mass-produced. This is an independent artist that is repurposing Barbies. You can get them on Etsy, but the idea that whether you're an eight-year-old kid or a 28-year-old woman in engineering so that you can take these dolls and you can create a vision for yourself of what a career should look like, what a life should look like, what a world should look like, what it means to be a female-presenting person in the culture that we live in And that, I think is really, really powerful.
Wolf: I agree. Everything is everything is material. Everything is changeable. That's a pretty good message. One more?
Stefani: Yeah. One more.
Wolf: Let's do it. All right. So Hello, Barbie.
Stefani: Yeah, I will go to bat for video Barbie video. Barbie was well-intentioned, and I don't think she got a fair chance, but hello, Barbie. Or as she was affectionately known to many parents, “Hell no, Barbie” is a slightly different story.
Wolf: So what, Uh, what was that story?
Stefani: Barbie became, uh, Web-enabled. And Barbie became akin to a Siri or an Alexa where you could connect her. And ostensibly she would talk to your kids and your kids could talk to her. But, you know, as I'm sure there are lots of cringy people listening to this. No, you know, those things are not secure. We talk about the problems with Alexas. We talk about the problems with echoes. Now imagine that it is your eight-year-old playing alone in her bedroom with this Internet-enabled listening device.
Wolf: One of the things that stood out to me about Hello, Barbie. And it reminds me of the early days of Internet technology. In the commercial space, there's a percentage right, a percentage of employees that are focused on, you know, safety and security, a percentage of revenue that goes into that. And as you might imagine, uh, the larger the company generally the larger the budget. Generally, the more people who are looking out for it, vice versa. The smaller the company, the less resources there are. Uh, our good friend Wendy Nather coined the term the “security poverty line”, which is a line below which a company is too small to effectively defend itself. So with that in mind, the partner that Mattel picked for building Hello, Barbie was toy talk. Do you want to guess the size of toy talk?
Stefani: I mean, they're partnering with Mattel, so I want to say 300 people.
Wolf: 300 would be good. If you had 300 people, you'd probably have a, you know, chief information cybersecurity officer. You'd probably have a product security team, maybe 10-15 people would be working on it. So, no. Think smaller. I'll give you one more guess.
Wolf: Closer. Getting closer. Uh, LinkedIn says between 11 and 50 employees.
Stefani: Oh, dear.
Wolf: There were only 10 people that I could find that were actually saying that they were, uh, employed at toy talk. The website is now, uh, unavailable. As of the past couple of years, it was up till about 2018, but it really looks just like a couple people. Uh, and a product engineer or a couple, you know, good technologists, A sales guy. Uh, a CEO pitched Mattel on. Hey, let us run this tech for you. Um, and they they had done other partnerships, so, you know, to be fair, toy talk had also partnered with Mattel on Thomas and friends talk to you, Which was this IOS android app. So they had done other things, but this tiny, tiny company is building this technology and protecting this technology that was ostensibly gonna go out into, you know, thousands, uh, tens of thousands of homes.
Stefani: That is terrifying.
Wolf: Little Bit.
Stefani: So how does something like that happen? Because I would think and again this podcast is not endorsed by Mattel in any way, shape, or form. But I would have assumed that big money would be drawn to big money. That they would be more likely to use a large company because they don't need to focus as much on budget as a startup might be.
Wolf: Right. And that's that is a really good question. I wish I could have been in the room where it happens. One of the things you know that oftentimes happens with tech companies is you. You have a very, um, passionate core group of people. They talk very excitedly. Um, they sound very knowledgeable and non-technical people are like, Wow, that person really uses all the right buzzwords and sometimes that can unfortunately sway decisions. I think, another thing to take into account. And we've talked about this, uh, on this podcast with other types of toys. Toy companies don't oftentimes recognize when they become a technology company. And the difference in risk and the difference in protection and the difference in where you make your investments is quite a bit different between a physical toy and being a tech company.
Stefani: Yeah, I can see that. And we've definitely seen that with adult toy makers that they don't think about the fact that once they make something that's connected or connectable now they've become a tech company.
Wolf: Yeah, exactly. Same story here. And I feel bad for the toy talk people I do because they had a couple of successes. Um, you know, they clearly had an interesting idea. Uh, they were able to sell Mattel and Hello, Barbie, and then all the backlash hit. And then it looks like they went out of business. I can't say that for sure, but their website is definitely down.
Stefani: Oh, no, I feel terrible for them. What can we take away from Barbie's less great days? I know that, you know, in the movie every day was the best day ever, but she's had some bad days. What can we do as parents, as people that are thinking about these issues to be more mindful of.. How do we empower our kids of all genders to want to be aspirational and to envision a world where they can do anything and to give them the resources to experiment with that? But also to keep them safe while doing so.
Wolf: I thought I was the one who usually ask you those questions because it's it's a tough question to answer, right? You know, media, media literacy, and keeping our head on our shoulders with threats was why I take away from our first story. Yes, let's not put a camera in every girl's bedroom. That sounds like a terrible idea. Uh, but also, yes, When all the news is saying, Oh, my goodness, the sky is falling. Take a breath. Think about all the risks that could possibly happen. You know, Is this really the right risk to be paying attention to.
Stefani: How can I know what the right risk to pay attention to is because I hear the, you know, don't bite to the hype. Necessarily. I hear the do some independent research, take a minute to breathe and to reflect. But I also know that every time like an Apple update comes out, you and every hacker I know are messaging me being like, did you update yet? Did you patch yet? Did you update yet? What's going on? So how can I as, um, our audiences stand in layperson as our, um, de facto Luddite. How can I differentiate the Hello Barbies from the video Barbies?
Wolf: Stop and pause. And let me ask you, did you update your phone? Because that was that was I always update your devices, whether it's a Barbie or a phone. Now, the question to ask when you're reading an article is what was the original source material in this case, uh, with video Barbie it was an FBI alert. Right. So what was the original source material? And look at that. The next question. Is there any of the stories reporting actual cases? Look at that. How often are these cases happening? Look at that. And I think we all have a good sense of, like all the risks that are are out there in terms of, like, driving and flying and whatnot. I mean, it can get very difficult to sort of, like list out everything that could possibly go wrong because a lot of things could possibly go wrong. But the question is what is actually going wrong and what is realistically going to happen and if nothing is happening and the media is just reporting that someone said something. And when you look at the original statement, it's not that bad. And when you look at the reporting, it doesn't mention any cases. I think you can sleep well at night.
Stefani: That makes sense to me.
Wolf: How do you talk to your clients about surveillance toys in Tech? Because I gotta imagine. I mean, I know you predominantly. You're not a, uh, uh, a therapist for kids. You're a therapist for couples. But I got to imagine some of your couples have kids. Some of your couples are thinking about this. Also, some of your couples might be people who recently grew up with some surveillance stuck in their house. How do you navigate these conversations?
Stefani: You know, honestly, I would say that that's most of my clients. Um, the vast majority of the people that I work with are parenting, and this, to me, is a part of the the birds and the bees Conversation. This is to me is a part of the how do you talk to your kids about “no means no” about privacy, about secret keeping all of these things that tie into how we keep them safe in their bodies and in the world. Start with, you know, where are you putting information? Where are you? Who are you talking to? What are you talking about? What are we giving you? That mimics technologies that we might not want them using when they're older? You know, we were shopping for a birthday present for a friend of ours, Child's first birthday. And one of the toy options was like Baby's first Webcam. It was like Baby's first dreaming setup, and I keep thinking about it. I actually think I'm gonna go back and buy one just to have as an example of terrible toys and technology in my talks, because it's not cute. Like we think it's cute. It's like a little baby twitch streamer. But we're teaching them from little bitty ages to not have this concept of personal privacy to not have this idea of just because the information is available. That doesn't mean it needs to be shared, and I think that most of the conversations that I have with my clients are in that realm. We're very rarely talking about specific behaviors or problematic experiences or situations. We're talking about how can we weave in this idea of ongoing affirmative consent of bodily autonomy and of informational autonomy from day one early and often and at all stages of their kids' lives?
Wolf: So there's some tips for technology. There's some tips for your relationships. Question for you, Love. I know you follow this a lot. Has Barbie gotten it right? Like, is there an example where they just like, crushed it?
Stefani: All right, well, first of all, I, I want to stress that I sometimes feel like there's a false dichotomy between being pink and super girly and loving sparkles and loving, um, frills and then being serious and, you know, logically minded and an engineering type person there, there tends to be this sort of unfair split. And I think a lot of adult women, especially a lot of adult women in your community, are working really hard to push back on that. And to be like, I can be a kick-ass OPSEC person and also dress entirely in sequence. And I appreciate that about them. Um, so I would first say that any Barbie that appeals to your kid is the best Barbie for them. But because we're specifically talking about times and ways in which Barbie has gotten tech wrong. I do want to do a shout-out to Robotics Engineer, Barbie, who looks like our friend.
She's got, you know, jeans and a denim jacket and a funky t-shirt, and she comes with eye protection and she comes with a robot, and it's really, really cool. And they partnered with, um, Girls Who Code on this project. So they worked really hard to be representative of actual girls and actual women who are working in this space and who are excited about the space or who dream about being engineers in the future, instead of including a storybook about how, um, the aspirational main character needed to lean on others around her for help. It comes instead with some free coding lessons, actually, for the kids that own Barbie to play around with. So instead of getting a storybook about how Barbie couldn't do it herself, they get the opportunity to actually try doing a little bit of coding. And while I am not a coding person, I have, um, Children in my family who are, and I think that's super cool. So you know the best Barbie for your kid is the Barbie that your kid resonates with, and that speaks to their vision for their life and their fantasies about the future. But if those fantasies include STEM and technology, Robotics Engineer Barbie is pretty flipping cool.
Wolf: That's fantastic. And I love the shout-out to Girls Who Code one of my favorite organizations. All right, with that, thank you so much for tuning into Securing Sexuality, your source of the information you need to protect yourself and your relationships.
Stefani: Securing Sexuality is brought to you by the Bound Together Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit. From the bedroom to the cloud. We're here to help you navigate safe sex in a digital age.
Wolf: Be sure to check out our website securing sexual dot com for links to more information about the topics we discussed here today, as well as our upcoming live event in Detroit.
Stefani: And if you want to join us live in Detroit, you can use discount code POD15 – POD15 – at the Securing Sexuality website to save 15% off your registration. Once you've done that, join us again here for more fascinating conversations about the intersection of sexuality and technology.
Wolf: Have a great week!