CrySP Speaker Series on Privacy

This speaker series is made possible by an anonymous charitable donation in memory of cypherpunks and privacy advocates Len Sassaman, Hugh Daniel, Hal Finney, and Caspar Bowden.

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What Hello Barbie Can Tell Us About Behavioural Targeting

Valerie Steeves, University of Ottawa

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September 15, 2016 2:30pm, in DC 1302


This paper examines the legal and discursive structure of Hello Barbie, Mattel's interactive doll that records a child's speech, sends it to the cloud for analysis, and remotely selects one of approximately 8,000 pre-determined phrases so Barbie can "talk" to the child in real time. I argue that Hello Barbie provides a window into the non-transparent practices that are at heart of big data marketing and the ways in which the algorithm at the heart of big data can not only reproduce discriminatory patterns, but also encourage children to incorporate stereotypical performances in their social interactions. I trace Barbie's development since 1959, from doll to interactive website presence, to marketing robot, to examine how Barbie's various incarnations have interacted with the private world of child's play. Westin's privacy states and functions are used to examine how Mattel has reconstructed the Barbie doll, a social artefact that can be resisted through play, into a highly disciplinary networked persona that is less accessible to critique/resistance. Although parents are co-opted to help with the work of building the brand through the legal agreements that govern the play, the child herself provides the primary labour of commodification as her imaginary conversations become the material out of which commodities are made.


Valerie Steeves, B.A., J.D., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada. Her main area of research is in human rights and technology issues. Her current research focuses on children's use of networked technologies, and the use of big data for predictive policing. She is the co-principal investigator (with Jane Bailey) of The eQuality Project (funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through a partnership grant), which is examining young people's experiences of privacy and equality in networked spaces. She is also the lead researcher on the Young Canadian in a Wired World project (YCWW), which has been tracking young people’s use of new media since 1999. IAs a co-investigator on the Big Data Surveillance project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, she is co-leading (with Kevin Haggerty) a working group examining the use of big data for policing and other forms of social control.