Amazon’s privacy woes are no secret. There are a million and one reasons that privacy-minded consumers should be wary of Amazon’s smart gadgets and those of its subsidiaries. If a parent knows to think twice before buying a veritable Amazon surveillance device for themselves, why the hell would they buy one for their kid?
But none of that’s going to stop Amazon from weaseling its way into your kid’s space, as evidenced by its Echo Kids Edition and a newly announced child’s Kitchen and Market set from KidKraft premiering at this year’s Toy Fair. The two-in-one playset comes equipped with more than 100 interactive play pieces that prompt an Alexa device to burp out a series of “responsive, educational, and hilarious phrases.” The Alexa device sits squarely on a shelf in a kid-sized play kitchen and market meant for kids 3 years and older—oh, and it’ll cost you $300.
Setting aside for a moment the absurd price tag for miniature versions of everything you have in your real kitchen—it’s not that bad, as far as kitchen playsets go—Amazon has not exactly demonstrated itself to be a staunch protector of data, much less children’s data. In fact, two federal lawsuits last year accused Amazon of using technology that “routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent or the consent of their parents” in violation of some state laws.
Amazon says the toys require a parent’s permission before kid skills can be used. Additionally, Amazon said the mic is off and audio isn’t being collected unless one of the RFID sensors on the set is triggered and a prompt follows, such as if a child scans an item in the market and Alexa asks whether they should add another ingredient. While Amazon seems to argue that devices cued up for the “child-directed” kitchen and market set are designed not to record kids when they’re not actively playing with the set’s interactive features, make no mistake, it does keep voice recordings.
The exception to the enabled mic and audio-collection is when there is a back-and-forth between the child and Alexa about an item they’re scanning, at which time those recordings will be stored. Presumably, dozens or even hundreds of sound bites could be picked up during a given play session, and who the hell knows who is going to hear those. Plus, Amazon says it’s up to parents or guardians to delete those themselves, or at the very least set them to auto-delete after three or 18 months. (Amazon did not respond to a specific question about how long the recordings are stored in the cloud.)
“The Alexa 2-in-1 Kitchen and Market skill is child-directed, meaning a parent needs to enable and approve it. It also needs to follow strict content guidelines that’s different than regular skills,” an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement. “[A given] skill must not include any advertising, make any products, content or services available for purchase, collect any personal information, or include content not suitable for all ages. Parents can review and delete voice recordings associated with their account at any time through the Alexa app or through the Alexa Privacy Hub.”
Sure, parents can delete recordings of their own children (and potentially others’) that are collected by Amazon. But does every parent whose kid has one of these in their home have time to do that regularly? Probably not! And if nothing else, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to be making kids comfortable with this sort of thing from their earliest, most impressionable age.
Clarification: After publication, Amazon clarified that an RFID scan alone will not open the mic to record interactions. Rather, if an object is scanned, Alexa will respond with a playful conversational phrase. If the child proceeds to respond to Alexa, the device will then begin to listen in for a response. This article has been updated to accurately reflect this process.