U.S. lawmakers are raising concerns over the Amazon Echo Kids Edition, a hands-free, voice-controlled hockey puck of a device that reads bedtime stories, plays Disney tunes, and programs our offspring to be tactful and courteous when interacting with artificial intelligent machines—a useful survival skill to impart in advance of humanity’s impending subservience to the cybernetic authoritarian regime that shall one day enslave us all.
Until such time as our populations are culled at the hands of our sentient mechanized masters, there’s the little matter of whether kids are going be harmed by potentially having their privacy invaded by the world’s second most wealthy corporation.
Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, and Congressman Joe Barton, a Republican, are probing Amazon over a feature found in the Echo Kids Edition, targeted toward children ages 5 to 12. Namely, the lawmakers are concerned about a feature that records children’s voices and stores them online.
Some of the questions contained in a letter the lawmakers sent to Amazon this week have already been resolved: Yes, the device does record kids. And yes, parent’s can supposedly permanently erase the records whenever they choose. Amazon has also promised not to use the records for any marketing or advertising purposes—only for improving the device’s functionality.
“Parents can access all their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, and delete them individually or all at once, which also deletes them from the Amazon server,” an Amazon spokesperson told the Mercury News. The spokesperson added: “FreeTime on Alexa voice recordings are only used for delivering and improving the Alexa voice service and FreeTime service—they are not used for advertising or Amazon.com product recommendations.”
But other questions are less resolved by Amazon’s boilerplate responses: If the records aren’t deleted, how does Amazon keep them? Which third parties will have access to the data and for what purpose? If parents don’t consent to having their child’s voice collected, can they still use the device?
We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment about the lawmakers’ letter and will update when we receive a response. In speaking with the Mercury News, the Amazon spokesperson asserted that the company complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. Customers can see its Amazon’s privacy policies for Alexa on its website.
It’s worth mentioning that late last month Arkansas prosecutors sought and eventually acquired recordings taken by an Echo device. Amazon did combat the demand, and it was the defendant who eventually gave permission, but the records seem hardly out of reach for law enforcement. (Police also acquired Fitbit data last year in a murder case last year.)
The letter, provided below, requests a response from Amazon by June 1. We’ll report back if Markey and Barton get their answers. In the meantime, if you don’t want to let a company wiretap your kid’s bedroom, maybe buy them a less invasive toy.
Update, 5:35pm: Amazon sent Gizmodo the following statement:
We received the letter this morning and will be working directly with the Senator’s office to address each question. Amazon takes privacy and security seriously, and FreeTime on Alexa is no different. Echo Dot Kids Edition uses on-device software to detect the wake word and only the wake word. Only once the wake word is detected does it start streaming to the cloud, and it will present a visual indication (the light ring at the top of the device turns blue) to show that it is streaming to the cloud.
During set up, the Alexa app asks for parental approval and provides information on the privacy and security of their children’s voice recordings. Parents can access all their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, and delete them individually or all at once, which also deletes them from the Amazon server. FreeTime on Alexa voice recordings are only used for delivering and improving the Alexa voice service and FreeTime service—they are not used for advertising or Amazon.com product recommendations. We do not share audio recordings with FreeTime Unlimited skill developers, and FreeTime Unlimited skill developers are prohibited from collecting personal information. Further, customers can press the mute button on the top of the device, which electrically disconnects the microphones. This is by hardware design: no power = no audio in.
Amazon added that while developing its product, it worked with a number of “child development experts and advocacy groups,” including the Family Online Safety Institute.