Amazon is facing two US federal lawsuits seeking class-action status that allege the company’s smart voice assistant, Alexa, “routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent or the consent of their parents”.
Two suits have been filed on behalf of an eight-year-old child in California and a ten-year-old in Massachusetts by Travis Lenkner of Chicago’s Keller Lenkner and L.A.-based law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages under privacy laws in nine states: California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
According to the suit, the children interacted with Alexa via Echo Dot speakers within their homes. In both cases, the parents say they never gave Amazon consent to record their child’s voice. They claim that the voiceprints could let the company keep track of a child’s use of Alexa-enabled devices, enabling it to accumulate a “vast level of detail about the child’s life”.
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Amazon says that it only stores data once a device-owner has granted it permission to do so. “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,” a spokeswoman told the BBC.
The complaints say that Alexa devices could have been designed so that only digital queries are sent rather than recording. Or that the recordings be deleted shortly after being processed. However, Amazon says this could impact Alexa’s ability to deliver personalised replies.
If neither of these changes were made, the plaintiffs suggest Amazon do more to ensure children and others are aware of their being 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,” the complaints state. Neither the children not the parents have consented to the children’s interactions being permanently recorded.”
In response to media enquiries, Amazon directed reporters to a blog it published last month, which details its subscription service designed to help parents manage their children’s use of Alexa. It says parents can review and delete their child’s voice recordings or personal information associated with it at any time via an app or the firm’s website.
David Limp, the executive in charge of Alexa, told the BBC that the company only profiled youngsters under 13 if parents had agreed to its terms of service.
“[If] they’re 13 and below… then the parent opts in for them,” he said.
“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.”
Only about 1% of recordings were ever checked by Amazon staff, said Limp, and he added, those involved would not be shown the user’s name or address. While Alexa’s privacy notice does say it collected voice data to provide a better service, it does not say these recordings are listened to by humans