4 min read

Last week, two lawsuits were filed in Seattle that allege that Amazon is recording voiceprints of children using its Alexa devices without their consent. This is in violation of laws governing recordings in at least eight states, including Washington. The complaint was filed on behalf of a 10-year-old Massachusetts girl on Tuesday in federal court in Seattle. Another nearly identical suit was filed the same day in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, on behalf of an 8-year-old boy.

What was the complaint?

Per the complaint, “Alexa routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent or the consent of their parents.” The complaint notes that Alexa devices record and transmit any speech captured after a “wake word” activates the device. This is regardless of the speaker and whether that person purchased the device or installed the associated app. It alleges that Amazon saves a permanent recording of the user’s voice instead of deleting the recordings after storing them for a short time or not at all. 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.

The lawsuit alleges that Amazon’s failure to obtain consent, violates the laws of Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington, which require consent of all parties to a recording, regardless of age.

Aside from “the unique privacy interest” involved in recording someone’s voice, the lawsuit says, “It takes no great leap of imagination to be concerned that Amazon is developing voiceprints for millions of children that could allow the company (and potentially governments) to track a child’s use of Alexa-enabled devices in multiple locations and match those uses with a vast level of detail about the child’s life, ranging from private questions they have asked Alexa to the products they have used in their home.”


What does the lawsuit suggest Amazon should do?

The plaintiffs suggest that more could be done to ensure children and others were aware of what was going on. The lawsuit claims that Amazon should inform users who had not previously consented that they were being recorded and ask for consent. It should also deactivate permanent recording for users who had not consented.

The complaints also suggest that Alexa devices should be designed to only send a digital query rather than a voice recording to Amazon’s servers. Alternatively, Amazon could automatically overwrite the recordings shortly after they have been processed.

What is Amazon’s response?

When Vox reporters asked Amazon for a comment, they wrote to them in an email, “Amazon has a longstanding commitment to preserving the trust of our customers, and we have strict measures and protocols in place to protect their security and privacy.”

They also pointed to a company blog post about the FreeTime parental controls on Alexa. Per their FreeTime parental control policy, 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. However, these same requirements do not apply to a child’s use of Alexa outside of the FreeTime service and children’s Alexa skills.

Amazon’s Alexa terms of use notes, “if you do not accept the terms of this agreement, then you may not use Alexa.” However, according to Andrew Schapiro, an attorney with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, one of two law firms representing the plaintiffs. “There is nothing in that agreement that would suggest that “you” means a marital community, family or household. I doubt you could even design terms of service that bind ‘everyone in your household.’”

This could also mean that Alexa is storing details of everyone, and not just children. A comment on Hacker News reads, “Important to note that if this allegation is true, it means Alexa is recording everyone and storing it indefinitely, not just children. The lawsuit just says children because children have more privacy protections than adults so it’s easier to win a case when children’s rights are being violated.

Others also share similar opinions:

 

However, a few don’t agree:

 

The suit asks a judge to certify the class action and rule that Amazon violated state laws, require it to delete all recordings of class members, and prevent further recording without prior consent. It seeks damages to be determined at trial. The Seattle case seeks damages up to $100 a day and the California case wants damages of $5,000 per violation.

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