Amazon has come under fire once again over privacy practices related to its Alexa voice assistant software.
On Thursday, privacy advocates in the U.S. said the kids’ version of Amazon’s Alexa won’t forget what children tell it — even after parents try to delete the conversations.
That’s why they’re asking the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday to investigate whether it violates children’s privacy laws.
A coalition of groups led by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Georgetown University’s Institute for Public Representation is filing a formal complaint with the FTC alleging that Amazon is violating the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA, by holding onto a child’s personal information longer than is reasonably necessary.
In one video example advocates posted online, a child asks the device to remember some personal information, including her walnut allergy.
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An adult later tries to delete all that information, which includes the voice recordings and written transcripts associated with them. But then, when the child asks what Alexa remembers, it still recalls that she’s allergic to walnuts.
“This suggests that Amazon has designed the Echo Dot Kids Edition so that it can never forget what the child has said to it,” the complaint says.
Amazon has denied the allegations, saying the Echo Dot Kids Edition is compliant with COPPA.
While it’s unclear whether the FTC will take up the investigation, the probe does have the backing of some senators.
Senators Edward J. Markey, Richard Blumenthal, Dick Durbin and Josh Hawley asked for the probe on Thursday, saying the product doesn’t comply with privacy laws.
“Children are a uniquely vulnerable population,” the senators wrote in the letter.
“We urge the commission to take all necessary steps to ensure their privacy as ‘internet of things’ devices targeting young consumers come to market, including promptly initiating an investigation into the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition’s compliance with COPPA.”
The Amazon Echo for kids was launched about a year ago with the company promising strict parental controls on the device.
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Cybersecurity expert Ajay Sood, who is the general manager of Symantec Canada, told Global News that while Amazon has faced privacy criticism over Alexa before, it’s particularly concerning this time.
“Adults, generally speaking, have the ability to protect themselves and to defend their rights,” he said.
“If you’re a minor and your privacy violated, you can’t litigate, you can’t sue, you can’t really take them to court.”
Sood added that while, technically, there is an onus on parents to protect children, it is a company’s responsibility to be ethical and follow laws.
“This stuff is being marketed to parents. A lot of folks just believe what they’re told. They’re buying into the marketing surrounding these products,” he explained, noting that companies also know that customers won’t read lengthy instructions or terms and conditions.
“You can’t expect the parent to have a constant eye over the shoulder on every cellphone, every iPad, every Amazon transaction,” he added.
Previous concerns over Alexa
This is far from the first time that Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant has come under the microscope due to privacy concerns.
In May 2018, a Portland woman said her family’s Amazon Echo recorded her conversations then sent them to a random contact without any human direction.
She said she only found out about the recording when she got a phone call from the person who received the recordings, who was an employee of her husband’s.
In December last year, another user of the voice assistant in Germany got access to more than a thousand recordings from another user because of “a human error” by the company.
The customer had asked to listen back to recordings of his own activities made by Alexa, but he was also able to access 1,700 audio files from a stranger when Amazon sent him a link.
—With files from the Associated Press and Reuters