UPDATED with response from Amazon: When children talk to an Amazon Echo Dot for kids, who, exactly, is listening? Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) posed that question in a letter sent to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking how the online retail giant protects the privacy of children who use the smart speaker.
The voice-activated device, which retails for $80, is promoted on Amazon’s site as a benign digital nanny: “a kid-friendly DJ, comedian and storyteller.” It comes with a year’s free access to the FreeTime Unlimited service, which provides ad-free radio stations and playlists, 300 Audible books for kids, including Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan, and games and other content from Disney and Nickelodeon.
“While these types of artificial intelligence and voice recognition technologies offer potentially new educational and entertainment opportunities, Americans’ privacy, particularly children’s privacy, must be paramount,” wrote Markey and Barton in a letter dated Thursday.
An Amazon spokesperson acknowledged receipt of the letter this morning and said the company will work directly with the legislators to respond to their questions. However, she sought to reassure consumers that the Echo Dot Kids Edition device and its companion FreeTime service comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
“Amazon takes privacy and security seriously,” the spokesperson said. “And FreeTime on Alexa is no different.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal heightened awareness of technology companies’ data collection practices and created public backlash. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent 10 hours testifying before Congress about how the now-bankrupt political consulting firm gained access to the personal information about 87 million users, in its efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
Last month, nearly two dozen child advocacy and watchdog groups called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google for allegedly violating children’s privacy laws with its YouTube video service.
The lawmakers asked Bezos to provide details about whether Amazon records and saves children’s interactions with the device and if these conversations are converted to text and stored. They want to know if parents can review and delete these recordings, or any other information Amazon collects along the way.
Markey and Barton ask if Amazon is building a profile or “voiceprint” of each child who uses the Echo Dot Kids Edition and how long Amazon holds on to this information if a parent doesn’t delete it. They want to know what third parties have access to this data, and whether it’s used for marketing purposes.
The legislators also ask what steps Amazon has taken to comply with the parental consent requirements of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
Amazon said that during setup, the Alexa app asks for parental approval and provides information about the privacy and security of their children’s voice recordings. Parents can access all their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, and delete them individually or all at once, which also deletes them from the Amazon server.
FreeTime on Alexa voice recordings are only used for delivering and improving the Alexa voice service and FreeTime service—they are not used for advertising or Amazon.com product recommendations, the spokesperson said. Amazon does not share audio recordings with developers, who are prohibited from collecting personal information.
Customers can press the mute button on the top of the device, which electrically disconnects the microphones. This is by hardware design: no power equals no audio in.
Parents can find more information on Alexa and overall privacy practices here.