Amazon’s Alexa is the target of a pair of lawsuits 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.
It’s the latest development in an ongoing debate around Alexa and privacy.
The suits were filed in courts in Seattle and Los Angeles on Tuesday, on the eve of Amazon unveiling the latest generation of Echo Dot Kids Edition smart speaker.
Announcing the new version of the devices on Wednesday morning, the company attempted to defuse privacy concerns — saying it built its premium “FreeTime” games and media service for kids with the input of family groups. Amazon said it adheres to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The company added, “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.”
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.
“At no point does Amazon warn unregistered users that it is creating persistent voice recordings of their Alexa interactions, let alone obtain their consent to do so,” the lawsuits allege. The suits were filed in California and Washington state by lawyers from Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP and Keller Lenkner LLC.
Update, June 14: Amazon shared the following statement with GeekWire:
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. Customers set up their Echo devices and we give them easy-to-use tools to manage them, including the ability to review and delete the voice recordings associated with their account. We also offer FreeTime on Alexa, a free service that provides parental controls and ways for families to learn and have fun together.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs, who are minors living in Massachusetts and California, suggested several ways in which Amazon might avoid keeping recordings of children. They also noted other voice assistants such as Apple’s Siri that are “less intrusive than Amazon’s Alexa Devices” and delete recordings after a short period of time.
“When children say a wake word to an Alexa Device, the device records and transmits the children’s communications in the same manner that it handles adults’ communications. Neither the children nor their parents have consented to the children’s interactions being permanently recorded,” the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuits are seeking class-action status for residents of the eight states “who used Alexa on a household Alexa Device while they were minors, but who have not downloaded and installed the Alexa App,” and ask Amazon to destroy recorded conversations of children and pay statutory damages.
Last month, consumer advocacy and privacy groups filed a complaint with the FTC asking the regulator to investigate Amazon for allegedly illegally collecting information via its Echo Dot Kids Edition device. On Wednesday, Amazon announced a new version of the device.
In a May 9 post on the issue, the company focused specifically on its FreeTime app, not the broader line of Echo or Alexa products and services. Amazon pointed out that FreeTime requires parental consent, and that kids skills in FreeTime don’t collect personal information.
“FreeTime on Alexa voice recordings are retained to enable parents to review and listen to their children’s interactions with Alexa, to improve the child’s experience, and to improve our Alexa and FreeTime services,” the post said.
It added, “Parents can review and delete the voice recordings at any time in the Alexa App or on our website. Parents can also contact Customer Service to request deletion of their child’s profile and personal information associated with their child’s profile (including voice recordings).”
Amazon also faced a public outcry following the revelation in April that employees listen to Alexa conversations with the goal of improving the digital assistant.
The lawyers in the suits filed Tuesday wrote that the states’ consent laws “recognize the unique privacy interest implicated by the recording of someone’s voice. That privacy interest is all the more powerful in light of modern voiceprinting technology and the potentially invasive uses of big data by a company the size of Amazon.
“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,” they added.
See the full suit below.
Thanks to Venkat Balasubramani for alerting us to the case.