If you have a hard time understanding the meaning of privacy and the scale of digital surveillance in the modern age—and let’s face it, who doesn’t?—consider a toy named Cayla.
Cayla is a doll with long hair, a tiny denim jacket, and little pink shoes. She also comes with a microphone, a Bluetooth app, and built-in voice-recognition technology. My Friend Cayla, as the product is called, can introduce herself and suggest fun activities. The label on her box reads “She has millions of things to say!” And she does. But who is she talking to?
Could it be the CIA? Several years ago, consumer groups discovered that when somebody asks Cayla a question, the dialogue is stored on a server owned by Nuance Communications. That firm sold “voice biometric data” to the military and intelligence agencies. After discovering the privacy concerns surrounding My Friend Cayla in 2017, the German government banned the doll. (It is still available for purchase in the United States.)
This story isn’t unique, says Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It is just another example of how invisible “supply chains” create marketplaces out of behavioral data. A chunk of dialogue from a child’s playtime travels to a server. The data are shared with a third party, which can sell them to yet another organization. Neither the child nor the parents will ever fully know where the data are going, or for what purposes.