Mattel's Aristotle on a bedtime table

Mattel spikes smart baby monitor amid privacy concerns

Image credit: Mattel

US toymaker Mattel is withdrawing its plans for a connected, artificial intelligence (AI) equipped baby monitor, following opposition from legislators, and privacy and child’s rights advocates.

Manufactured by Mattel’s “nabi” brand of high-tech children’s toys, the device was named “Aristotle”, and marketed as a child-friendly Alexa combined with a smart baby monitor. It was first presented in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

The Wi-Fi enabled device works as an audio and visual baby monitor, while also functioning as a voice-controlled assistant (or companion). It can soothe crying, read bedtime stories, answer a toddler’s questions about the world, and switch on a night light. Thanks to its AI abilities, it can learn about a child as they mature, and even have the capability to help an adolescent with their homework.

Following the presentation of Aristotle earlier this year, advocates began to raise concerns around data collection, as well as arguing that infants being encouraged to form bonds with a device could affect early development in ways we do not understand. A petition opposing the product collected 15,000 signatures, and two Senators wrote to Mattel to communicate their concerns.

“This new product has the potential to raise serious privacy concerns as Mattel can build an in-depth profile of children and their family,” wrote Democratic Ed Markey, who represents Massachusetts and Republican Joe Barton, who represents Texas.

“It appears that never before has a device had the capability to so intimately look into the life of a child.”

The Senators requested that Mattel provide answers to questions about data collection by the device, such as what parental controls were available over data sharing, how Mattel plans to ensure that Aristotle and third parties comply with the Children’s Privacy Protection Act, and whether the videos and other information collected by Aristotle would be transmitted to Mattel servers and if so, whether this data would be used for marketing products. Mattel stated in response that data collected by Aristotle would be stored with high-level encryption and not be sold to advertisers.

The Children’s Privacy Protection Act 1998 forbids internet companies harvesting personal data from children up to the age of 12 without parental consent.

Under continued pressure, Mattel has now decided to shelve the product. In a statement to The Washington Post the company said that, having conducted an “extensive review” of the product, they had decided that it does not “fully align with Mattel’s new technology strategy”.

“The decision was then made not to bring Aristotle to the marketplace as part of an ongoing effort to deliver the best possible connected product experience to the consumer.”

Aristotle is among the first AI-powered products to be dropped due to privacy concerns, although a range of other connected toys have prompted similar concerns. Mattel’s Hello Barbie – which records and stores conversations with children – was one of several talking dolls strongly criticised for its surveillance possibilities. In July the FBI issued a warning to parents, describing the potential privacy and security risks that came with connected toys, following a similar warning from the European Commission in February about the “Internet of Toys”.

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