Amazon settlements highlight concerns about digital privacy protections

Whether it’s a camera surveillance system or a smart speaker, more and more people have electronic tools in their homes capable of collecting sensitive personal information.

It’s leading to concerns about digital privacy protection.

Last week, online retail giant Amazon agreed to pay more than $30 million in fines for settlements connected with privacy concerns about their use of data collected through Alexa and Ring.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleges Amazon violated privacy laws by keeping recordings of children’s conversations and by employees monitoring camera recordings without the person’s consent.

In response, a spokesperson for Amazon told our Washington News Bureau:

“At Amazon, we take our responsibilities to our customers and their families very seriously. Our devices and services are built to protect customers’ privacy, and to provide customers with control over their experience. While we disagree with the FTC’s claims regarding both Alexa and Ring, and deny violating the law, these settlements put these matters behind us. We built Alexa with strong privacy protections and customer controls, designed Amazon Kids to comply with COPPA, and collaborated with the FTC before expanding Amazon Kids to include Alexa. As part of the settlement, we agreed to make a small modification to our already strong practices and will remove child profiles that have been inactive for more than 18 months unless a parent or guardian chooses to keep them. Ring promptly addressed the issues at hand on its own years ago, well before the FTC began its inquiry. Our focus has been and remains on delivering products and features our customers love, while upholding our commitment to protect their privacy and security.”

We spoke with the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT) about digital privacy concerns.

“The home is obviously maybe the most private place that we have, and so that kind of data is particularly sensitive and can be particularly revealing about someone’s habits,” said Samir Jain, Vice President of Policy for CDT. “There are so many devices now in our homes that collect data. Everything from smart speakers to your thermostat, even appliances, cameras, motion detectors.”

Jain said consumers can better protect themselves by being armed with information about which devices in their homes can collect and store personal data and the company policies on how the information is used.

“Part of it is being conscious about what data collection appliances are actually in your home,” said Jain. “Second is to make sure that to the extent you have choices about what data is collected, how that data is used, that you’re conscious and exercise those choices.”

Members of Congress have been debating digital data collection laws and have held multiple hearings about the issue.

“We need a national data privacy standard that changes the status quo and ensures Americans regain control of their personal information,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) during a House subcommittee hearing in April.

“They are constantly collecting our personal private information including names, geo locations data, addresses, health data,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL).