My Friend Cayla: the doll for children accused of ‘illegal espionage’

Jayla, aged 4, plays with a 'My Friend Cayla' doll in the Hamleys toy shop on June 26, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

A German telecommunications watchdog is warning people about a doll that could be used to spy on you and your children.

My Friend Cayla, a doll sold in Canada and around the world, uses a microphone, speakers and a Bluetooth internet connection to answer questions on almost anything.

This past week, Germany’s Federal Network Agency says the unseen microphone means the doll is classified as an “illegal espionage apparatus” in that country, and is urging parents to destroy or disable the toy.

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It also says distributors who sell the toy could be liable for fines if they continue to sell it.

There have also been reports about people hacking into the toy, first discovered in January 2015, the BBC reports.

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The concern was brought up to German authorities by a student from the University of Saarland.

The doll can be hacked by a Bluetooth connection from up to 10 metres away, Hessel said.

It’s the second such complaint made against the toy. In December, 2016, U.S.-based advocacy groups including EPIC (the Electronic Privacy Information Center) filed a complaint against Cayla, saying it’s manufacturers may sell information to “military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

The complaint, filed to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, was lodged against Cayla’s manufacturer Genesis Toys and the speech recognition software used in the toy, Nuance.

It states Cayla and other toys like it, can “record and collect the private conversations of young children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal information.”

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The complaint says the terms of service for the doll specify that any question asked to the doll is recorded and stored, and will be used both to enhance the toy as well as “third parties acting under the direction of Nuance.” It then details the third parties could include  “military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

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In addition to spying, the complaint details research showing the doll had preprogrammed references to Disney – which they say claim to be product placement which is unethical since it’s not disclosed to parents.

“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,” the complaint reads.

The doll is made by Genesis toys, a U.S.-based company focusing on “innovative hi-tech children’s entertainment products,” according to their website.

The company did not respond to a request for comment from Global News as of the writing of this article.

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