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Children’s Privacy Compromised

A federal lawsuit charges Amazon with children’s privacy compromise through its Alexa devices. Alexa is Amazon’s virtual assistant product. Amazon is being charged with making permanent recordings of children’s voices without their consent or their parents’ consent. Specifically, Amazon is charged with children’s privacy compromise in eight states (Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington).Children's Privacy Compromised - Altizer Law PC

The lawsuit requests class-action status to represent all people who lived in a home with an operating Alexa device – which they did not set up – while a minor. The lawsuit alleges that Amazon violated a Massachusetts wiretap statute and corresponding laws in the other states named. These state privacy laws were violated (says the lawsuit) when Amazon made “persistent recordings” of minor children and intercepting and using their oral communications without the consent of all relevant parties. In addition, several consumer organizations have charged that Amazon is in violation of federal wiretap laws.

What is claimed in the lawsuit about Amazon:

  • “Amazon has strong commercial incentives to collect as many Alexa recordings as possible.”
  • “From the outset, Amazon has been a company built on the relentless acquisition of consumer behavioral data.”
  • A concerted effort to record voices as a means of refining the voice and language recognition capabilities of Amazon products.
  • Many of these recordings are reviewed by Amazon employees and contractors in a number of foreign countries.
  • Upon hearing the “wake word” the Alexa device records the communication that follows. Then unlike other smart devices – it sends the recording to Amazon’s servers for processing and interpretation.
  • Once Alexa responds to a recording from an Alexa device, Amazon indefinitely stores a copy of the recording on its own servers for later use and analysis.

Amazon has responded with the following:

  • It has strict measures and protocols in place to protect its customer’s privacy.
  • Customers set up their Echo devices and they are given “easy-to-use” tools to “manage them, including the ability to review and delete the voice recordings associated with their account.”
  • Amazon offers FreeTime on Alexa, which provides parental controls.
  • Amazon’s website claims that Alexa records “only after the device is given its wake word.
  • A blue light indicates that the device is recording.
  • Users can hear and delete voice recordings by using Alexa’s privacy settings.
  • Users can also delete by voice by saying, “Alexa, delete everything I said today.”

What Does this Mean?

  1. First and foremost, Amazon is preying upon our society’s most vulnerable citizens – our children.
  2. Amazon is developing voiceprints for all of these children. The voiceprints could allow Amazon or others to whom data may be sold or governments to monitor a child’s use on any Alexa-enabled devices anywhere. The data would then provide a detailed record of the child’s conversations, questions, and use of various products.
  3. These recordings could inadvertently reveal private family conversations to third parties.
  4. The recordings may also capture voice prints of other family members and friends of these children.
  5. Information gathered about these children can be manipulated and used for good or ill throughout the child’s life.
  6. If the voiceprints created are good enough, they could provide access to any voice-operated technologies available to the child.
  7. This suit and others claim that the collection of this type of data from children “violates the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA.”
  8. We all know how often supposedly secure personal data has been hacked or compromised due to security weaknesses of other companies. Once this information has been gathered or stolen, there are no controls upon how the data will be used.

The lawsuit attempts to put the concerns into context in this way: “The collection of Alexa Device recordings is a natural extension of Amazon’s modus operandi: collect as much consumer data as possible through any means possible, streamline the process so that consumers cannot or will not stop the collection, and use Amazon’s massive size to leverage that data more effectively than any of its competitors.”

“Amazon markets Echo Dot Kids as a device to educate and entertain kids, but the real purpose is to amass a treasure trove of sensitive data that it refuses to relinquish even when directed to by parents” according to Josh Golin the executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. “COPPA makes clear that parents are the ones with the final say about what happens to their children’s data, not Jeff Bezos. The FTC must hold Amazon accountable for blatantly violating children’s privacy law and putting kids at risk.”

Most of us have given up a good bit of our personal privacy for the perceived value offered by software, retail, and social media companies. But are we willing to do the same with our children’s privacy? How will we protect children in the other U.S. states and territories?

Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

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