The German Federal Network Agency has ordered parents to destroy any “My Friend Cayla” dolls that their children have, or face more than $25,000 in fines for not complying. This ruling comes after the smart dolls were found to be transmitting audio recordings to a third party specializing in voice recognition for police and military forces.
The unique selling point of My Friend Cayla is that not only does the doll speak, but it uses speech-to-text protocols to be able to have conversations with the children. An example on the website has a girl asking the doll what a baby kangaroo is called, with the doll correctly identifying it as a joey. However, this listening functionality leaves the doll open to hacking. Anyone who has access to a valid version of the doll’s connected mobile app can access the toy via Bluetooth.
The FNA, Germany’s telecommunications network, first raised the problem of the dolls back in February, instructing parents to destroy it for containing a “concealed transmitting device.” Now it is taking the extra step of completely banning the sale, purchase, and ownership of the dolls.
Stefan Hessel, a law student who helped formulate the FNA’s legal opinion to ban the doll, told the Wall Street Journal that “it’s pretty bad bringing a doll on the market anybody in a 30-feet radius can connect to… A regular Bluetooth loudspeaker is better protected.”
Parents have been instructed to fill out a certificate of destruction of the doll and have it signed by a legitimate waste-management company to be sent back to the FNA for proof after the doll is destroyed. Telecommunication laws in Germany leave open a potential fine of $26,500 and two years in prison as a general punishment for not following FNA directives.
Vivid Germany GmbH, the German distributor of the doll has responded, saying it takes the decision seriously but stands by the doll, claiming it doesn’t break any laws. In a statement, the company said that “there is no reason to destroy Cayla or give the doll away… It isn’t a spying device.”