Amazon's Echo for Kids Violated Privacy Law, Advocacy Groups Say
(Bloomberg) -- A coalition of children’s advocacy organizations is asking U.S. regulators to investigate whether Amazon.com Inc.’s Echo kids smart speaker violates privacy law.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, joined by several other interest groups, plans to file a complaint Thursday with the Federal Trade Commission saying Amazon’s Echo Dot Kids Edition infringes on children’s privacy rights. The company retains voice recordings indefinitely and, in some cases, holds onto their personal data even after users tried to delete it, according to the complaint.
Those practices violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, said Josh Golin, executive director of the CCFC.
“Given that Amazon has the money to pay the best corporate privacy attorneys that money can buy, it seems really strange that this was done in such a way that it does violate COPPA in so many ways,” said Golin, who added that Amazon’s system “does feel like it was designed to confuse parents,” rather than protect their children’s privacy.
In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson said: “FreeTime on Alexa and Echo Dot Kids Edition are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” The company pointed customers to its Alexa website if they want more information.
U.S. Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped write COPPA, said in a letter to the FTC, joined by other senators, that the new findings raise “serious concerns about the extent to which the Echo Dot Kids Edition complies” with elements of the law.
The CCFC was among the groups critical of Amazon a year ago when the Seattle company first released a kid-focused variant of its popular Echo smart speaker line.
Encased in colorful rubber protectors, the hockey puck-sized devices come with Amazon’s Alexa voice software and features like parental controls and advertising-free radio stations. Also included is a year of Amazon’s FreeTime, a subscription service that offers a curated selection of kid-focused applications.
The devices, the CCFC contended last year, invaded kids’ privacy and risked outsourcing elements of parenting to corporate-controlled software. Supported by a grant from the Rose Foundation, the Boston-based organization enlisted lawyers with Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation to probe Amazon’s privacy practices.
The lawyers say they uncovered several potential violations of COPPA, which was passed two decades ago and restricts how companies can use data collected from kids younger than 13.
The advocates also argue that a privacy feature designed to let parents delete elements of kids’ personal information did not seem to actually erase that knowledge from the software’s memory.
Researchers tried deleting facts they’d previously asked Alexa to remember, as well as the software’s entire history of voice recordings, only to find Alexa could still recite a child’s phone number, address and other personal details on command. In their testing, the only way to actually erase all of the personal information scooped up about a specific child was to delete that child’s profile entirely.
“We tried multiple ways, multiple time periods, to delete things, but it comes back anyhow,” said Angela Campbell, a professor of law and co-director of Georgetown Law’s institute. “There doesn’t seem to be any way other than discontinuing the service to stop that.”
Amazon says most kid-friendly skills, or Alexa applications, don’t have privacy policies because they don’t collect personal information. Skills associated with FreeTime, the company says, don’t have access to or collect user’s data.
The FTC, the main federal agency charged with enforcing privacy law, declined to comment on a complaint it hadn’t received.
Musical.ly, the popular teen video app now known as TikTok, earlier this year agreed to pay $5.7 million to settle claims that it illegally collected children’s personal information.
“The FTC responds to pressure from Capitol Hill, and there is so much interest on Capitol Hill in regulating the big tech companies” Golin said. “We’re hopeful that in this changed climate they will take these incredibly serious violations by Amazon seriously.”
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