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Alexa records children without consent and stores recordings permanently, US lawsuit alleges

A lawsuit filed in a federal court in Seattle alleges that Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant records children who use it without their consent and saves recordings permanently, the Seattle Times reported. The complaint, filed on behalf of a 10-year-old girl from Massachusetts on Tuesday, seeks class-action status and alleges that Amazon’s practices violate privacy laws in eight states – Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington. A class action is a type of lawsuit where one of the parties is a group of people who are represented collectively by a member of that group. The proposed class in this suit is minors in the eight states “who have used Alexa in their home and have therefore been recorded by Amazon, without consent.”

Amazon stores recordings ‘permanently and without consent’

The lawsuit alleges that:

  • Amazon saves a permanent recording of the user’s voice, in contrast to other makers of voice-controlled computing devices, which either don’t store recordings or delete them after a short time.
  • Alexa devices record and transmit any speech captured after they are activated by a “wake word”, even if the speaker is someone who didn’t buy the device or install the associated app on their phone.
  • Alexa is capable of identifying speakers based on their voices and Amazon could choose to inform users who had not previously consented that they were being recorded and ask for consent. It could also deactivate permanent recording for users who had not consented. “But Alexa does not do this,” it claims.

‘Rigorous privacy standards’ only for kids using paid service?

Amazon has a paid service called FreeTime that helps parents manage their children’s interactions with technology, including limiting screen time. The company said it has been used by more than 10 million children. When it expanded the service to include Alexa last year, the company said it applied do it the same rigorous privacy standards that it had in place for FreeTime. However, as the Seattle Times report noted, it does not appear that the same requirements apply to a child’s use of Alexa outside of the FreeTime service and children’s Alexa skills.

The lawsuit also cites an earlier report which revealed that Amazon employees and contractors individually review thousands of audio clips recorded by Alexa devices. Amazon workers listen to the audio clips which they then transcribe, annotate and feed back into the software to improve Alexa’s voice recognition ability and to help it understand commands better. The teams are based out of Amazon offices in Boston, Costa Rica, India and Romania. Each reviewer works for 9 hours a day, on 1,000 audio clips per shift.

How Amazon collects personal information from children under 13

In its children’s privacy disclosure for Alexa, Amazon says that when it knows a child is using its services (for example, when using a child profile), it may collect the following ‘Child Personal Information’ with parental consent under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act: name, birthdate, contact information (including phone numbers and e-mail addresses), voice, photos, videos, location, and certain activity and device information and identifiers (such as cookies, device serial numbers, and IP addresses). It says parents can choose whether to give it permission to collect Child Personal Information from their children. If they choose not to, it may provide certain voice services intended for children and process the child’s voice recordings to provide them, but will not store those recordings. However, Amazon adds, this “does not apply to the practices of any third-party services (including apps, skills, and websites) that may be accessed through an Amazon product or service”. It encourages users to review the terms and policies of such services before using them.

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