Amazon's Alexa Stalked Kids, Ignored Parents' Pleas: FTC

Amazon eavesdropped on kids and kept the data indefinitely, violating the Children's Online Privacy Act, the FTC charges.

Amazon's Alexa Stalked Kids, Ignored Parents' Pleas: FTC
Photo by Thomas Park / Unsplash

Amazon's Alexa has been very bad lately and now they are in trouble again. First, it was Alexa's doorbell being used to spy on consumers in their homes.

Now the Federal Trade Commission says Alexa basically stalked children, recording their conversations, keeping them forever and ignoring parents' requests that they be deleted, according to a news release.

While the doorbell peeping Tomisms were fairly straightforward violations of privacy, the alleged misdeeds involving kids are more serious.

There's something called COPPA - the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act – and it requires, among other things, that a commercial website directed to children under 13 years of age must notify parents about the information it collects from children, obtain parents’ consent for the collection of that data, and allow them to delete that information at any time. Also, the data is not supposed to be kept any longer than necessary.

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"History of misleading parents"

"Amazon’s history of misleading parents, keeping children’s recordings indefinitely, and flouting parents’ deletion requests violated COPPA and sacrificed privacy for profits,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“COPPA does not allow companies to keep children’s data forever for any reason, and certainly not to train their algorithms, he said.”

Amazon said it kept the children’s voice recordings to help it respond to voice commands, to allow parents to review the recordings, and to improve Alexa’s speech recognition and processing capabilities, according to the complaint.

Children’s speech patterns and accents differ from those of adults, so the unlawfully retained voice recordings provided Amazon with a valuable database for training the Alexa algorithm to understand children, benefiting its bottom line at the expense of children’s privacy, the FTC charged.

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$25 million penalty

The FTC's order, if approved by a judge, will require Amazon to delete all of the children's data and pay a $25 million civil penalty. Other provisions of the proposed order:

  • Prohibit Amazon from using geolocation, voice information, and children’s voice information subject to consumers’ deletion requests for the creation or improvement of any data product;
  • Require the company to delete inactive Alexa accounts of children;
  • Require Amazon to notify users about the FTC-DOJ action against the company;
  • Require Amazon to notify users of its retention and deletion practices and controls;
  • Prohibit Amazon from misrepresenting its privacy policies related to geolocation, voice and children’s voice information; and
  • Mandate the creation and implementation of a privacy program related to the company’s use of geolocation information.