Privacy Advocates Raise Concerns About Mattel’s Always-On ‘Aristotle’ Baby Monitor

Image courtesy of Aristotle site

Anyone who has watched a young child become fascinated with virtual “assistants” like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or Google Home could guess that it was only a matter of time until one of these “smart” devices would be created specifically for monitoring kids. With Mattel set to release an all-in-one assistant/monitor, consumer advocates are questioning how secure, beneficial, or harmful these devices actually are.

The product is called Aristotle, and looks basically like a slightly taller Google Home, and includes a wall-mounted, WiFi connected camera that promises real-time HD streaming video of your kid to your phone or tablet. And the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood thinks it’s gross.

The website for Aristotle heavily features branding for manufacturer Nabi, a kids’ electronics brand that Mattel bought the parent company of back in January.

Nabi describes the product as “the first all-in-one, voice-controlled smart baby monitor that grows with your child.”

It works about the same way as your Google or Amazon counter-mounted assistant, too — always listening for cue sounds, then responding — but with a few extra features. The camera lets it function as a baby monitor, and the base not only has a speaker but also incorporates a light and a sound machine. The companion app, meanwhile, promises to function as a growth, feeding, and diapering tracker for new parents, as well as parenting automation — you can set it to turn on the light and play music in your baby’s room if it detects crying, for example.

Aristotle isn’t available yet, but shoppers can pre-order units, expected to ship in July, for $350.

Nabi at least seems to be well aware that internet connected baby monitors and cameras are basically the worst-secured, most easily-hacked devices in the world. It promises heavy-duty encryption on your video streams, and full compliance with COPPA, which regulates how and when companies can collect and use data pertaining to children under 13.

But security from would-be hackers is only a tiny, tiny fraction of the huge problems with Aristotle, the CCFC says.

In a petition asking Mattel not to release Aristotle, the CCFC says the product “isn’t a nanny, it’s an intruder,” and says, “Children’s bedrooms should be free of corporate snooping.”

Because Aristotle connects to other apps and online retailers, the CCFC says, data about families and children can be shared with all those partner corporations, who in turn can use it for deeply personal targeted advertising.

Additionally, the CCFC says, the device itself may cause more direct harms, by interfering with parts of infant development that, while exhausting for new parents, are totally normal. For example, soothing a child in the night or reading stories to them in person has a physical bonding aspect that digital caretaking does not.

The CCFC points out that when asked specifically about the effects AI has on growing children, Mattel’s chief products officer actually said, “honestly speaking, we just don’t know,” adding, “If we’re successful, kids will form some emotional ties to this. Hopefully, it will be the right types of emotional ties.”

And as your baby grows into a toddler and child, Aristotle is supposed to keep up with them, answering new queries and delivering targeted, commercial content from companies with books, music, games, or apps to sell. (Imagine, for example, the marketing that could arise if your kid asks the AI about their favorite Disney movie du jour.)

“Aristotle is no friend to babies or children – it’s a marketing device and a data-collecting intruder into family privacy,” CCFC Executive Director Josh Golin said in a statement.

“With Aristotle, Mattel seeks to inject corporate surveillance and marketing into the most intimate and important moments of young children’s lives. We urge Mattel to not rush this device into the marketplace, but to listen to the experts who understand how Aristotle will undermine children’s healthy development,” Golin concluded.

We’ve reached out to Mattel for comment on the CCFC petition and will update if we receive a response from the company.

Toys and devices that listen and report back on kids have come under increased scrutiny in recent months. Back in December, a group of consumer advocates including CCFC and our colleagues at Consumers Union filed a complaint to the FTC about two dolls that record children. Similar complaints overseas led to German authorities asking parents in that country to destroy the dolls, and potentially facing hefty fines if they don’t comply.

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