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Germany Bans 'My Friend Cayla' Doll Over Spying Concerns

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While liberals can follow conservatives and conservatives can follow liberals, Cayla follows everyone. Cayla is a doll made in America, and authorities in Germany claim that My Friend Cayla, as she's officially marketed, contains digital spyware. As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Berlin, Germany's telecommunications watchdog has ordered the interactive toy removed from stores, and it's urging parents who have bought the dolls to destroy them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: (Speaking German).

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: (Speaking German).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In this ad, excited little girls pepper a talking doll with questions. One child exclaims, she understands what you're saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Proud young owner declares, my friend Cayla knows a million things. German authorities say that's the problem. The Federal Network Agency, which oversees German telecommunications, determined the doll is vulnerable to hacking and that it violates the country's strict electronic privacy law. That's because it secretly collects and transmits everything it hears, in this case to a voice recognition company in the U.S. Olaf Peter Eul is a spokesman for the German watchdog.

OLAF PETER EUL: It wouldn't be a problem, actually, if it just recorded. But the direct transfer to the internet is really the problem.

NELSON: Eul says children can play with the doll if the offending electronic parts are removed. I ask him if that wouldn't make Cayla, well, boring.

EUL: (Laughter) Yeah, we are not glad about this fact. But it is for the protection of the children themselves because they don't know which datas (ph) go through the internet to the companies, actually.

NELSON: Cayla faces legal troubles in the U.S. as well, where privacy and consumer advocates last year filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. And the Norwegian Consumer Council released a video warning about the doll's vulnerabilities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FINN MYRSTAD: This is, in our view, a massive breach of many consumer laws.

NELSON: Its technical director, Finn Myrstad, sums up his concerns with a question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MYRSTAD: Cayla, can I trust you?

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I don't know.

NELSON: The LA-based company that makes the dolls, Genesis, did not respond to a written request for comment. Nuance, which makes the doll's voice-recognition software, referred NPR to its online statement from December, which says the company does not share voice data collected from the doll with marketers or other customers. For now, the doll remains available at many stores on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as online. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DRESDEN DOLLS SONG, "THE PERFECT FIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.