Amazon and the subsidiary that engineered the Echo smart speaker are staring down allegations presented in two proposed class action lawsuits that say Amazon’s Alexa technology records the voices of children without the consent of their parents. Filed in federal court inWashingtonandCaliforniaon behalf of two minors, the lawsuits allege Alexa-enabled devices like the Echo, Echo Dot and Fire Stick routinely record and voiceprint millions of children in violation of nine state laws governing the recording of oral communications without the consent of all parties involved.
The suits explain that Amazon’s Alexa functionality listens to users’ verbal communications and then responds to those directives via a simulated human voice. To start using the Alexa app, the cases continue, users must have an account with Amazon and complete a relatively simple set-up process to pair an Alexa-enabled device to the app. Once this is completed, Alexa is ready to use.
To interact with Alexa, a user need only say a “wake word,” such as “Alexa” or “Echo,” in order for the device to kick on and begin recognizing speech, the cases explain. This functionality apparently works through Alexa-enabled devices’ storage of a few seconds of audio in short-term random-access memory (RAM) that analyzes what the device is hearing in search of the wake word. If a wake word is not recognized, the lawsuits say, no permanent recording is supposed to be made of whatever was spoken. However, when a wake word is recognized, the Alexa device supposedly records the following communication, which the cases allege is indefinitely stored by Amazon on its servers “for later use and analysis” even though other types of voice-recognition technology purportedly do not maintain voice recordings for the long term.
Given that Alexa-enabled devices respond to any individual who says the wake word, the devices therefore create records of those who may not have purchased the device nor installed the Alexa app themselves, the cases say. With this in mind, it’s entirely possible, the lawsuits posit, that Amazon has collected the voiceprints of millions of minors:
“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.”
According to the complaints, even though Alexa has the ability to distinguish between different users based on their voiceprints, at no point does Amazon warn unregistered users, including children, that it is creating “persistent recordings of their Alexa interactions,” much less ask their consent to do so.
“When children say a wake word to an Alexa Device, the device records and transmits the children’s communications in the same manner that it handles adults’ communications,” the lawsuits read. “Neither the children nor their parents have consented to the children’s interactions being permanently recorded.”
The lawsuits look to cover minors in Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Washington and California who used Alexa on an Alexa-enabled device but who have not downloaded nor installed the Alexa app. Laws in these states, the suits say, “recognize the privacy interest implicated by the recording of someone’s voice.”