The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is receiving new calls to investigate alleged privacy flaws in Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa. The calls, which emerged on Thursday May 9th, come as testers find new problems associated with the Echo Dot speaker that was designed for children, AP has reported.
Privacy advocates are claiming that Amazon's Alexa won't forget what children tell it, even after parents try to delete the conversations. For that and several other alleged privacy flaws they found while testing the service, the groups have now apprached the FTC to investigate if any privacy laws pertaining to children are being violated.
"These are children talking in their own homes about anything and everything," said Josh Golin, who directs the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. "Why is Amazon keeping these voice recordings?"
A coalition of groups led by Golin's organisation, along with Georgetown University's Institute for Public Representation, is filing a formal complaint with the FTC. They allege that Amazon is violating the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, known as COPPA. This is being done, allegedly, by retaining a child’s personal information longer than is necessary.
Amazon released a statement, saying its Echo Dot Kids Edition is COPPA compliant.
But in one particular example that was captured on camera, a child could be seen asking the device to remember some personal information, including her walnut allergy.
An adult later tried to delete all that information, includiing the voice recordings and written transcripts associated with them. But then, when the child asked what Alexa had remembered, ithe system was still able to recall that she was allergic to walnuts.
"This suggests that Amazon has designed the Echo Dot Kids Edition so that it can never forget what the child has said to it," the complaint stated.
It also said that some 85% of the more than 2,000 games, quizzes and other Alexa "skills" aimed at children did not have privacy policies posted. Such skills are generally produced by independent software developers or other third parties, not Amazon.
While it remains unclear if the FTC will act on the complaint, the agency has been enforcing children’s privacy rules more seriously than previously said Allison Fitzpatrick. She is a lawyer who helps companies to comply with COPPA requirements and was not involved in the complaint. In addition, she added that the FTC rarely makes its investigations public.
But just last week, the agency issued a warning to a Ukrainian firm. The company in question has three dating apps that appeared to violate COPPA because they were accessible to children. This subsequently resulted in Google and Apple removing the applications from their app stores.
According to AP, the FTC also imposed a $5.7-million fine on popular video-sharing app TikTok. This is the the largest COPPA-related penalty since the law was enacted two decades ago.
Fitzpatrick said there usually needs to be some evidence of "real, actual harm," for the FTC to take notice. It cannot exist solely in the theoretical sphere, which she added advocacy groups often outline.
But, Fitzpatrick did state that, initially, the allegations against Amazon do seem to be rather troubling. She said the FTC does provide an exemption that allows a business to collect a child's voice recording without parental consent. But, she made it clear that this exemption is only for a temporary and specific purpose — such as to perform an online search or fulfill a verbal command.