Amazon sued over illegal Alexa child recordings in US

The American multinational technology company is being sued over its smart assistant’s recordings of children without parental consent.

Amazon’s Alexa is at the brunt of two law suits that allege the voice assistant violates laws in nine states by illegally storing recordings of children on devices such as the Echo or Echo dot. 

The two US cases allege the firm lacks consent to create voiceprints that could let it keep track of a youngster’s use of Alexa-enabled devices and build up a portfolio including “vast levels of detail about the child’s life”.

It’s the latest development in an ongoing debate surrounding Amazons Alexa devices and privacy.

Amazon has replied, stating “it only stores data once a device-owner has given it permission to do so”.

Parents can delete a child’s profile and recordings”.

Lawyers involved in the cases are seeking damages for the two plaintiffs involved, as well as others who are being invited to join the class-action lawsuits in nine states where it’s claimed Amazon is in breach of privacy laws.

The suits were filed in courts in Seattle on behalf of a 10-year-old girl and in Los Angeles on behalf of an eight-year-old boy last Tuesday, on the eve of Amazon unveiling the latest generation of Echo Dot kids Edition smart speaker.

The children are said to have used Alexa to tell jokes, play music, recognise movie references, solve math equations and answer trivia questions.

In both cases, the children had interacted with Echo Dot speakers in their homes, and in both cases the parents claimed they had never agreed for their child’s voice to be recorded.

In January, Amazon said more than 100 million devices featuring Alexa had been sold worldwide, ranging from its own Echo speakers to third-party products including headphones, fridges and televisions.

“Amazon has a longstanding commitment to preserving the trust of our customers and their families, and we have strict measures and protocols in place to protect their security and privacy,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

What is Alexa? 

The Amazon Alexa is a similar software that is used to those used in Apple’s Siri and Google’s home assistant. On enabled devices it constantly listens for a wake word -which can be set to be ‘Alexa, Amazon or computer’. If it is detected, audio captured prior to the wake word as well as what was said immediately afterwards, is transmitted to Amazon’s computer services for processing.

Because mistakes are sometimes made, recordings can be transmitted when the wake word is not actually used.

The recordings are automatically stored, allowing Amazon to use them to create a model of a user’s voice characteristics to help the service learn to adapt to diversity in the different ways people make requests as well as to provide tailored responses to different users in the home.

Registered users can prevent this happening by withdrawing consent. They have the option to actively train the system to better recognise their voice by repeating a series of phrase when setting up their Amazon product.

Human operators sometimes listen to the clips to tag them in order to help the machine-learning system involved become more accurate.

Users have the ability to delete stored conversations via an app or via Amazon’s website. Albeit, they can ask Alexa to delete the last recordings or last days’ worth of recordings via voice command.

However, the suits are about the Alexa assistant and Echo devices more broadly, not just the FreeTime service for kids. The suits name nine states – Florida, California, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington – that prohibit recording conversations without the consent of children or their parents.

The lawsuits are seeking class-action status for residents of the eight states, ‘who used Alexa on a household device while they were minors, but have not downloaded and installed the Alexa app,’ and ask Amazon to destroy recorded conversations of children and pay statutory damages.

‘Parental opt in’

Amazon states that parents can review and delete their offspring’s voice recordings at any time via an app or the firm’s website. In addition, it says, they can contact the firm and request the deletion of their child’s voice profile and any personal information associated with it.

Chief executive of Alexa, Dave Limp said, the firm only profiled under-13s if parents had agreed to its terms of service.

“If they’re 13 and below, then the parents opt in for them”, he explained.

“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 do that, then we do not keep any of the data for the child and we wouldn’t ever do that”.

He added that an estimated 1% of utterances were ever checked by its staff, and even those involved would not identify the users name or address.

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