Two cases of Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant illegally recording children have been reported in the USA. Amazon smart assistant can come in forms such as Amazon Echo, Amazon Alexa or Alexa Dot.
How does Alexa work?
Each device has the ability to respond to human voice recognition. The way they work is through using software that recognises wake words. These words are then sent to the cloud and an appropriate response is then sent back.
Why is Amazon being sued over this issue?
The worry comes over the firm not having consent to create voice prints that may have come from a child. The fears are that the virtual assistant has the ability to build up a “vast level of detail about the child’s life”.
There are currently 2 clients involved in the case; an 8-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl. Alexa was used with the children to help with homework, tell jokes and answer trivia, amongst many other things.
Both sets of parents claim that they did not give permission for the children to be recorded.
“At no point does Amazon warn unregistered users it is creating persistent voice recordings of their Alexa interactions, let alone obtain their consent to do so,” one parent said.
“Neither the children not the parents have consented to the children’s interactions being permanently recorded.”
Amazon is said to be in breach of privacy laws in 9 states. Lawyers involved in the two cases are seeking money for damages and invite others to join.
What do Amazon say?
The company have defended themselves by stating that it only stores data when permission has been given form the device owner. They also say that parents are able to delete files once they have been stored on products such as the Alexa Dot App. Amazon insists that they are adhering to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
They say: “None of the Alexa skills included within FreeTime Unlimited have access to or collect personal information from children, and there are multiple ways to delete a child’s profile or voice recordings.”
What is being done to help with this subject in the future?
It was suggested that perhaps when people buy Alexa, Amazon should send digital queries rather than vocal ones to the servers. However, Amazon argue that this could drive up the costs and make it harder to use voice recognition.
It was also recommended that Amazon re-write over the voice recordings soon after. But this also creates issues with the service such as its effectiveness when it comes to personal replies.
Last month, Amazon also created a subscription service which assisted parents in how to use Alexa, a point they have reiterated to journalists. They also noted that parents have the option of deleting recordings via their website and even have the option to contact them directly if any worries over voice recording were made.
Are Amazon taking this seriously?
Dave Limp, the executive in charge of Alexa told the BBC that only 1% of utterances were ever checked. He further said that even in those that are checked, anonymity is always kept.
In talking about the recording of children by Alexa, Limp told the BBC: “[If] they’re 13 and below… then the parent opts in for them, you have to verify through a parent that the parent themselves has given consent for the child. And we do that by verifying an actual credit card number.
“So if you don’t that, then we do do not keep any of the data for the child and we wouldn’t ever do that.”
He did, however, say that more checks should take place in terms of consent. The lawsuits come just before the unveiling of the latest Echo Dot Kids smart speaker. It was announced by Amazon in January that over 100 million devices featuring Alexa had been sold.