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Is the doll “My Friend Cayla” an illegal eavesdropping device?

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The doll “My Friend Cayla” was examined recently by a law student at Saarland University. In his article, he finds that the toy is an illegal piece of transmitting equipment in the sense of Section 90 of the German Telecommunications Act (TKG), arguing that the doll is suitable for secretly eavesdropping on conversations. The Bundesnetzagentur (Federal Network Agency) also views the toy as an illicit spying device. What does this mean for “My Friend Cayla” and her owners?

“My Friend Cayla” – The spy in your child’s bedroom

The toy “My Friend Cayla” uses Bluetooth to connect to a dedicated smartphone or tablet app, via which it is also connected to the Internet. Something you won’t realise at first is that the doll can listen in on conversations and transmit them over a wireless connection. The Bluetooth connection works within a ten-metre radius of the toy. If Cayla is switched on, you can have a conversation with her. According to the manufacturer, Cayla has “millions of things to say” – ask her questions, and she searches online for the answers.

In addition, the article in the specialist legal magazine JurPC reveals further ways in which the toy can be used: Every Bluetooth-enabled device within a radius of ten metres could potentially connect with Cayla, even through walls, and use the toy’s speaker and microphone. The article reports that this vulnerability means it is possible for unauthorised third parties to secretly listen in on conversations, and even actively join conversations, via a Bluetooth connection. The conclusion is that the doll ticks all the right boxes to be considered an illegal eavesdropping device as described in Section 90 of the TKG.

 

Bundesnetzagentur calls on parents to destroy “My Friend Cayla”

Now the Bundesnetzagentur has also announced that the doll is considered an illegal spying device under German law. Furthermore, the agency has called on parents to destroy the doll and fill in a form confirming the toy’s destruction, which can be downloaded from the Bundesnetzagentur’s website.

 

“My Friend Cayla”: What manufacturers and dealers can now expect

Section 90 of the TKG prohibits devices which are formed in such a way that they purport to be another object or look like everyday objects and are, for this reason, suitable for recording conversations unnoticed. Anyone who manufactures, markets, imports or even simply owns such devices can be sentenced to two years in prison or ordered to pay a fine. The manufacturer of “My Friend Cayla” and its dealers can now expect criminal charges and a ban on selling the product.

This is somewhat reminiscent of the Teddycam case from a decade ago: Back then, a home shopping channel offered viewers the chance to buy a teddy bear equipped with a camera and microphone as an “extended baby monitor”. Shortly before the end of the year, the channel asked buyers to return the teddy bear in exchange for a full refund. Around 90% of buyers complied with this request. The remaining 10% were subject to criminal investigations by the public prosecutor.

 

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