back to article Alexa, are you profiting from the illegal storage and analysis of kids' voice commands?

Amazon has been hit with two lawsuits in the US regarding the recording and storage of children's voices through its Alexa digital assistant. The lawsuits [PDF] were lodged in California and Washington courts this week by the guardians of unnamed children aged 8 and 10, and are largely identical: both allege that Amazon is …

  1. Aqua Marina

    GDPR! Someone report them to the ICO, and the appropriate ICO for each country in the EU.

    1. tfewster Silver badge

      "There is a large group of individuals who do not consent to be recorded when using an Alexa-enabled device and who use Alexa without any understanding or warning that Amazon is recording and voice printing them: children."

      I think the whole situation stinks, but I don't believe this will work as a legal argument in the US or the EU, as minors can't legally give their consent to anything anyway. If their parents/guardians have consented, that's sufficient.

      1. big_D Silver badge
        Childcatcher

        And if my little Jess is visiting you and you have Alexa in your house? As her guardian, I have not consented to Amazon capturing her voice!

        1. Wincerind

          That would come under the heading of parental responsibility. You need to tape "little Jess's" mouth shut until you've established that Alexa has been unplugged.

          1. Hemmels

            Just like it says in the terms and conditions. Somewhere. Probably.

        2. Patrician

          Alexa will only capture your little Jess's voice if your little Jess says "Alexa" I believe; although, if there is somebody in the same household that is named "Alexa", that could be a problem I guess.

          1. big_D Silver badge

            Alexa record a bit before the keyword - and Amazon submitted a new patent last week, where Alexa will send several seconds of voice to the mother-ship before the keyword is spoken (presumably for "what is the weather outside, Alexa?").

            Also you have kids playing around, chatting and somebody asks Alexa something, even in another room, the kids don't suddenly stop talking, so their voices are recorded as well.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Android's Assistant will, by default, wait for follow-up questions after each response (discovered buried deep in the settings that I wouldn't normally get to as I don't intend to use it... Settings > Google > Search/Assistant/Voice > Google Assistant > Assistant > Continued Conversations

              (only discovered this after upgrading to Pie)

              1. Patrician

                But that not the same thing; you've already said the trigger word so I would expect the device to be "listening" after doing so. But the proposal above, that Alexa starts recording before the trigger words is spoken, on the off change that it will be spoken at some point in the very near future seems, to me, to be improbable.

            2. Patrician

              "Alexa record a bit before the keyword - and Amazon submitted a new patent last week, where Alexa will send several seconds of voice to the mother-ship before the keyword is spoken (presumably for "what is the weather outside, Alexa?")."

              How would the device know when to start recording? It couldn't "know" that the trigger word would be coming eventually, unless Amazon have developed a working prophecy algorithm; so I'm sorry but I don't see how this could be working in the real world as it were?

              1. Kiwi Silver badge
                Boffin

                How would the device know when to start recording? It couldn't "know" that the trigger word would be coming eventually, unless Amazon have developed a working prophecy algorithm; so I'm sorry but I don't see how this could be working in the real world as it were?

                It's commonly done with car camera systems, security systems, backup systems...

                Create an audio buffer of say 30 seconds. Test for the keyword. if the keyword is heard, upload the current buffer (which should be pretty much the 30 seconds worth, depending on how long it takes for the thing to process and determine if the word is said). If the word isn't said, dump the last second off the buffer and repeat for 1-sec intervals.

                (car cameras await the knock sensor that indicates a crash or tap on the unit, storing the buffer contents instead of overwriting them, backups keep the oldest versions for so many months, security systems overwrite recordings older than X days....)

        3. tfewster Silver badge

          @big_D

          > As her guardian, I have not consented to Amazon capturing her voice!

          I fully agree with your sentiment, but again - legally - you've appointed me in loco parentis if Jess visits my house (of course, you checked me and my house out first, didn't you?).

    2. DropBear Silver badge

      When one says "oy, you have no consent for that!" people hear "we want you to stop doing it while continuing to provide the service" but corps hear "we need to add an appropriate roadblock (that counts as consent) before letting anyone use the service so we can continue to do exactly what we did before". And yes, even though GDPR explicitly forbids doing the latter, that didn't seem to have stopped anybody from doing it nonetheless. Yet...

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "The internet goliath says it does this to improve its service"

    That's what they all say nowadays. Has anyone ever seen this improved service?

    1. cantankerous swineherd Silver badge

      increased profits = better service obv.

    2. steelpillow Silver badge
      Devil

      You are the product. They are providing a better service to their investors and data-slurping clients.

      So not technically a lie.

    3. Richocet Bronze badge

      "it has yet, ... to offer individualized options when it knows exactly who it is speaking to and so change music or calendar or ordering options in response. Whether it can do that and hasn't yet provided the service out of fear it will cause people to freak out, or whether it's simply not able to be that accurate, is uncertain."

      Or it could definitely do this but that is not the objective. It's to create a fingerprint-like ID of everybody it possibly can to link personal data to and track the people.

      As someone who manages CRMs I can understand the immense value of achieving that. And also the immense invasion of privacy and wrongness of doing that secretly.

  3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "most people believe that when they speak to an Alexa-enabled device, it converts their voice into a set of digital computer instructions… They do not expect that Alexa is creating and storing permanent recording of their voice."

    Really? I wouldn't trust any such device not to store it. Not even if the vendor outright denied it. (Never believe a rumour until it's been officially denied - Jim Hacker)

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "Really? I wouldn't trust any such device not to store it. Not even if the vendor outright denied it."

      The sort of people who read here aren't the target audience because we understand the tech. The target audience either don't understand the tech (magic!) or have grown up with it and are brainwashed into not caring. You just have to look at "social media influencers" and their millions of followers.

      1. Hemmels

        Honest question.

        Do people actually follow "influencers"? What do they gain from it? They KNOW they are getting paid to advertise and push products etc, so it's not for their "unbiased, trustworthy reviews and opinion".

        I just thought it was a big circlejerk where bots create accounts to "up" follower numbers and overstate "influencers" and their reach, and the lucky few at the end get phat YouTube revenue.

        1. Muscleguy Silver badge

          As detailed in the thread on Influencers you obviously do not know or interact with young persons who are the target market of the influencers, not you or me.

          There are lots of folk who think doing their own research on likes and ratings and evidence and stuff is too much work. They just want someone they trust to tell them what to do, what to buy and why and it's free and you get to choose who to trust.

          You and I are not like that and research gives us a feeling of agency so we get good vibes from doing it. Not everyone is like this. Not all the time anyway.

          You may have heard how Scotland is a very politically aware and awake country after our indyref. It's true. I campaigned for Yes and saw lots of people at meetings who had never said anything in public grab mikes and say things and be applauded for it. People realised the MSM could not be trusted. Rates of non payment of the TV license are lare and growing here. The Beeb and their licensing agency will not reveal the data for Scotland. We suspect because it is embarrassing.

          Newspaper sales are declining all over but here in Scotland they are falling off a cliff, except for The National, the only daily which supports Independence, they keep growing subscribers and readers.

          1. Wellyboot Silver badge

            >>>The National, the only daily which supports Independence, they keep growing subscribers and readers<<<

            Sounds like (among far too many other) the Scots are buying the news & opinions they want to hear. While mainstream media has always been the voice of the owners, I'd say the Beeb was probably more willing to shoot down prominent government politicians than any other state funded broadcaster.

        2. rmason

          It's absolutely fake. You're right.

          Vacuous people following vacuous people.

          As one "influencer" discovered when she couldn't turn 2 million+ followers into 36 t-shirt sales.

          https://www.indy100.com/article/instagram-influencer-arii-t-shirt-sales-followers-fail-twitter-response-8936836

  4. Twilight

    I'm willing to bet permission for recordings is buried in the Amazon Alexa agreements you have to "read" (yeah, right) and click "accept".

    I don't understand why Amazon needs to store the actual recordings though. Voice print can be done without the recordings. Database of lots of info can be done without the recordings. Why does having the recordings benefit Amazon?

    1. Remy Redert

      So they can argue that you accepted the terms and consented to being recorded. The moment I step into your home however, they are breaking the law as I never gave any such consent.

  5. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
    Windows

    Well, no shit Sherlock

    Isn't that largely the point of these things - to harvest user data?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    What about Google and Apple devices

    Don't they do the same? Where are the lawsuits against them?

    Apple says that Siri commands stay on the device (year right, pull the other one)

    Won't bother me as none of these agents of big brother will ever get in my home.

  7. John70

    Will someone think of the children

    Did they think of the children when they bought the device?

    Or was it a case of "lets buy 1 then we can sue Amazon"?

    1. big_D Silver badge
      Childcatcher

      Re: Will someone think of the children

      It could be a case of parents who don't use the technology, don't trust it, don't have it in the house... But their children have friends, their children visit their friends and the friends' parents have Alexa.

    2. Kiwi Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Will someone think of the children

      Did they think of the children when they bought the device?

      Or was it a case of "lets buy 1 then we can sue Amazon"?

      I could be wrong, but I somehow suspect that the marketting people were careful to push every way it could possibly improve your life, how it could be a great education tool for your children and help them with their homework, how it can make your life easier and more enjoyable and how it's the future and you're better than everyone else by owning one etc etc etc..

      And .000000000001 pixel hidden under the bottom of the screen is dedicated to listing all the ways that it could be harmful.

      The same in the EULA - lots of hard-to-read leaglese designed to shut most people's brains down, all the while promoting in the big print how they respect privacy and are dedicated to user safety but burying the ways they're screwing you dozens of pages deep.

      I know a lot of parents who've purchased things for their kids because 1) they're parents, they don't really have time to do a great deal of research into it, 2) they believe it will in some way improve their kids lives and 3) their kids wanted it, and the parents wanted to give their kids some joy. Only later do they realise it was a bad choice when it turns out small bits break off to become a choking hazard, or (in the case of recent publications about screen time) can be hurting their eyes, or.....

      When it comes to marketing and people's motives, cynicism is often well-placed - but not always. Often people do buy bad products for the right reasons and don't plan to sue until their loved ones are put at risk.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Big Brother

    We want information… information… information.

    I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!

    1. Zog_but_not_the_first Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: We want information… information… information.

      Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha......

      Rover?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: We want information… information… information.

      My life is my own!

      I am not a number, I'm a free man.

      There you go, FTFY.

    3. The Nazz Silver badge

      Re: We want information… information… information.

      Coincidence or not?

      Didn't all of this start, or certainly take off, around that time we had that self serving tw*t of a PM whose glib catchphrase was "education, education, education".

  9. MrKrotos

    I found a simple way to stop this...

    I dont have any of these lazy devices in my house, amazing how cheap this solution is!

    I like gadgets but the level of lazyness of people is getting very silly, I just find it easier and more sane to just get up off my arse from time to time.

    1. Kiwi Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: I found a simple way to stop this...

      I like gadgets but the level of lazyness of people is getting very silly, I just find it easier and more sane to just get up off my arse from time to time.

      I used to play a fun game with some people just to watch the reactions. The game was hiding the TV remote.

      First, the number of people who'd spend an age looking for the remote rather than going to the TV and manipulating controls directly was funny (most TV's and STPs have at least some basic controls (eg volume and channel) on them even if the majority of the functions require the remote). Quite funny to watch them spend 20 minutes hunting in the lounge when a few seconds and a couple of paces would fix the issue.

      The next was the number of people where the remote was in sight but out of reach, so they'd continue to watch something they hated simple because fixing that problem would mean getting off their backside.

      Oh, the remotes were hidden in obvious places - eg I'd put it next to the kettle in the kitchen as if someone had absent-mindedly taken it out there. That way if I went home and forgot to make it visible (or didn't want to risk their wrath) they'd find it soon enough.

      1. Brangdon Bronze badge

        Re: hiding the TV remote

        Finding a lost remote when I want to use it makes sense to me. Using controls on the TV is a false saving, because I'll need to find the remote eventually anyway. If I can't find it I need to order a new one, because the TV box only has the most basic controls. (And they're hidden, and I'd have to figure out how to use them.)

        1. Kiwi Silver badge
          Holmes

          Re: hiding the TV remote

          Finding a lost remote when I want to use it makes sense to me. Using controls on the TV is a false saving, because I'll need to find the remote eventually anyway. If I can't find it I need to order a new one, because the TV box only has the most basic controls. (And they're hidden, and I'd have to figure out how to use them.)

          Well... These days most people use the TV remote to turn it on or off. The volume and channels are controlled by the STB - and AFAIUI some game consoles double as STBs (ie have tuners in them). So it's turn TV on, grab freeview/sky remote or game controller.

          Learning the controls is easy - the same process as learning them for the remote :)

          I have 1 TV/monitor and know of several through my family where the remote may not have been seen for some years. They turn the TV on/off at the wall, and the STB does the rest. No need to adjust any settings on the TV.

  10. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

    As for this being in T&Cs or Privacy Policy..

    Let me give you two links:

    NYT research into privacy policy readability and a somewhat older but very much applicable cartoon on T&Cs.

    Enjoy.

    1. Diogenes

      Re: As for this being in T&Cs or Privacy Policy..

      Not a link, but South Park covered this in the centIpad episode

    2. DJV Silver badge

      Re: As for this being in T&Cs or Privacy Policy..

      Upvote for the Freefall link - it's nice to find someone else that follows it!

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. Kiwi Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: As for this being in T&Cs or Privacy Policy..

      Another upvote for the Freefall link...

      And another follower - now :)

  11. Sir Loin Of Beef

    Then don't by the fargin' thing!

  12. hoola Bronze badge

    What a surprise

    Anything that Amazon, Google, Facebook do never surprises me. I am just amazed it has taken so long for someone to file a lawsuit. I also remain completely baffled as to why people fell they need these things in the first place. There are a few whom can benefit however there were solutions already available (although they have probably been forced out of business by now).

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