A lawsuit filed in Seattle alleges Amazon is recording children who use its Alexa devices without their consent, in violation of laws governing recordings in at least eight states, including Washington.
“Alexa routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent or the consent of their parents,” according to a complaint filed on behalf of a 10-year-old Massachusetts girl on Tuesday in federal court in Seattle. Another nearly identical suit was filed the same day in California Superior Court in Los Angeles, on behalf of an 8-year-old boy.
The federal complaint, which seeks class-action status, describes Amazon’s practice of saving “a permanent recording of the user’s voice” and contrasts that with other makers of voice-controlled computing devices that delete recordings after storing them for a short time or not at all.
The complaint notes that Alexa devices record and transmit any speech captured after a “wake word” activates the device, regardless of the speaker and whether that person purchased the device or installed the associated app.
It says the Alexa system is capable of identifying individual speakers based on their voices and Amazon could choose to inform users who had not previously consented that they were being recorded and ask for consent. It could also deactivate permanent recording for users who had not consented.
“But Alexa does not do this,” the lawsuit claims. “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.”
It alleges Amazon’s failure to obtain consent violates the laws of Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington, which require consent of all parties to a recording, regardless of age.
The proposed class only includes minors in those states “who have used Alexa in their home and have therefore been recorded by Amazon, without consent.”
Aside from “the unique privacy interest” involved in recording someone’s voice, the lawsuit says, “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.”
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.
A company blog post last month said “verifiable parental consent” is required to enable Amazon’s FreeTime, a service that costs $3 to $10 a month and is designed to help parents manage kids’ technology usage and provide a library of age-appropriate content. Alexa was added to the service last year. Further, the company says Alexa “skills” aimed at children do not collect personal information without separate consent and disclosure.
But it does not appear that those same requirements apply to a child’s use of Alexa outside of the FreeTime service and children’s Alexa skills. The issue is not discussed in the company’s lengthy page of frequently asked questions about Alexa.
A broader children’s privacy disclosure discusses Amazon’s collection of personal information from children under 13 — which may include “name, birthdate, contact information (including phone numbers and e-mail addresses), voice, photos, videos, location, and certain activity and device information and identifiers” — noting “in some cases we may know a child is using our services (for example, when using a child profile).” In those cases, collecting that information requires parental consent.
But there is nothing in that agreement that would suggest that “you” means a marital community, family or household, said Andrew Schapiro, an attorney with Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, one of two law firms representing the plaintiffs and would-be class. “I doubt you could even design terms of service that bind ‘everyone in your household,’” he said. (The other firm is Keller Lenkner.)
The suit asks a judge to certify the class action and rule that Amazon violated state laws; require it to delete all recordings of class members; and prevent further recording without prior consent. It seeks damages to be determined at trial. The California complaint notes that the relevant state law allows damages of $5,000 per violation.
The lawsuit claims Amazon is analyzing and using the recordings it captures through Alexa to benefit its business, and “has strong commercial incentives to collect as many Alexa recordings as possible.”
“From the outset, Amazon has been a company built on the relentless acquisition of consumer behavioral data … now [through] the Alexa Devices it uses as its ears in every home,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint cites reporting earlier this year from Bloomberg that revealed Amazon employees and contractors individually review thousands of audio clips recorded by Alexa devices. Amazon said the human reviewers “annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order to improve the customer experience.” In a list of frequently asked questions about Alexa, Amazon says Alexa requests are used for training. Users can opt out of this use in the privacy settings for the digital assistant.
The plaintiff is identified as “C.O.,” bringing the suit through parent Alison Hall-O’Neil. They live in Massachusetts and have had an Alexa Echo Dot in their home since last August. Amazon debuted the Alexa service and the original cylindrical Echo microphone-and-speaker device in 2014.
C.O. interacted with the Echo Dot to play music, tell jokes and answer questions. She was not aware of, nor did she or her parents consent to, the recording of her communications by Amazon, the complaint states.