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Suit alleges Amazon's Alexa violates laws by recording children's voices without consent

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- A lawsuit filed in Seattle Tuesday alleges Amazon is recording children who use its Alexa devices without their consent, in violation of laws governing recordings in at least eight states, including Washington.

"Alexa routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent or the consent of their parents," according to a complaint filed on behalf of a 10-year-old Massachusetts girl on Tuesday in federal court in Seattle.

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, describes Amazon's practice of saving "a permanent recording of the user's voice" and contrasts that practice with other makers of voice-controlled computing devices that delete recordings after storing them for a short time or not at all.

The complaint notes that Alexa devices record and transmit any speech captured after a "wake word" activates the device, regardless of the speaker and whether that person purchased the device or installed the associated app.

It says the Alexa system is capable of identifying individual speakers based on their voice and Amazon could choose to inform users who had not previously consented that they were being recorded and ask for consent. It could also deactivate permanent recording for users who had not consented.

"But Alexa does not do this," the lawsuit claims. "At no point does Amazon warn unregistered users that it is creating persistent voice recordings of their Alexa interactions, let alone obtain their consent to do so."

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It alleges Amazon's failure to obtain consent violates laws of Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington, which require informed consent of all parties to a recording, regardless of age.

The proposed class only includes minors in those states "who have used Alexa in their home and have therefore been recorded by Amazon, without consent."

Aside from "the unique privacy interest" involved in recording someone's voice, the lawsuit says, "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."

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

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