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Mattel Scraps Always-On ‘Aristotle’ Monitor Amid Slew Of Privacy Concerns

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Facing a new wave of privacy questions from lawmakers, consumer advocates, and concerned parents, Mattel has decided that it won’t go ahead with its delayed launch of Aristotle, the always-listening kid monitor designed to track and learn about your child from birth through adolescence.

What’s Aristotle?

Mattel announced the Aristotle monitor back in January.

At the time, designer Nabi (which had been acquired by Mattel a few months earlier) described the product as, “the first all-in-one, voice-controlled smart baby monitor that grows with your child.”

Basically, Aristotle was designed to work like a Google Home or Amazon Echo type of device, listening for cue sounds and then responding. But because it was designed as a baby monitor and interactive tool for young children — a population that’s exactly good at remembering clear cue words or, in fact, speaking comprehensible English at all — Aristotle also was designed to include a camera and light and sound machine.

Aristotle also was to pair with an app for new parents, which would function as a diapering, growth, and feeding tracker, as well as automating certain parenting functions — turning on music in the baby’s room if it detected crying, for example.

The problems

Advocates first voiced concern with the gadget months ago. The idea of Aristotle raised concerns on two main fronts.

First, “smart” baby monitors are basically the least secure, most hackable devices that exist. They are absurdly easy to get into and rarely patched, leaving families vunlerable where they most want to feel secure.

And second: In order to work, Aristotle was also supposed to collect loads of personal data about children — over periods of years. It would start with babies’ sleeping and feeding patterns, and then start listening and responding to kid’s queries. And the responses would be “marketing” friendly — just imagine, for example, how many Disney things Aristotle could try to sell your on if she told the speaker she liked Frozen‘s Elsa.

“Aristotle is no friend to babies or children – it’s a marketing device and a data-collecting intruder into family privacy,” Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood executive director Josh Golin said at the time. And more recently, lawmakers got worried too.

Last week, Sen. Ed Markey (MA) and Rep. Joe Barton (TX) sent Mattel a letter outlining “serious privacy concerns” and requiring answers to a set of questions about Aristotle, including:

  • Does it shoot and collect any photo or video, or use facial-recognition tech?
  • Does it record audio of children speaking within listening distance of Aristotle? If so, how and where (and how securely) are these file stored?
  • Is it truly an “always-on” device, meaning it collects data regardless of whether it’s actively being used?
  • What data will be transmitted to, and stored on, Mattel servers?
  • What information will be shared with third parties?
  • What measures have been taken to make sure Aristotle gets parental permissions when needed, and that it complies with federal laws regarding online products targeted at children?

The company was given until Oct. 18 to respond.

Farewell, Aristotle

The Aristotle units were available for pre-order in May, and were initially expected to start shipping in July.

In September, a sharp-eyed reader observed to Consumerist that the units had not yet shipped — and that the website for Aristotle appeared not to be working anymore.

We confirmed that aside from the original press release and stories based on it, Aristotle had basically vanished from the internet, and asked Mattel what was up.

“Aristotle did not go on sale,” a rep for the company confirmed to us at the time. “While we are confident in the Aristotle product and its potential to play an important role in the lives of families around the world, we have decided not to launch this Fall in order to ensure it is fully aligned with Mattel’s new technology strategy, which includes a common platform approach for all of Mattel’s Artificial Intelligence-driven tech toys.”

Finally, this week, after receiving both the lawmakers’ letter and a petition asking them to hold, Mattel officially decided that its “technology strategy” doesn’t have room for Aristotle in it anymore.

Mattel told the Washington Post that Aristotle was scrapped after a new chief technology officer joined the company in July.

The new CTO decided “not to bring Aristotle to the marketplace as part of an ongoing effort to deliver the best possible connected product experience to the consumer.”

Just the beginning

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood — the group that raised initial concerns about Aristotle to begin with — applauded Mattel’s move.

“We commend Mattel for putting children’s wellbeing first and listening to the concerns of child development experts and thousands of parents who urged them not to release this device,” said CCFC’s Golin.

He added, “The backlash against Aristotle should send a strong message to other toymakers and tech companies with plans for their own surveillance devices for young children.”

But that list of “other toymakers” is long and growing. Mattel’s own “Hello Barbie” generated outrage when consumers and advocates learned its privacy policy would allow recordings of kids to be shared with basically any third parties. A year later, several groups — including both the CCFC and our colleagues at Consumers Union — filed a complaint to the FTC about the data practices of the “My Friend Cayla” doll. And the FBI recently warned parents and caretakers to be aware of all the vulnerabilities “smart” toys present.

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