Amazon’s (AMZN) Alexa-enabled devices are illegally recording and permanently storing the voices of children without consent, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed this week in Washington state district court.
“The legal theory is very straightforward. These kids themselves never consented, if they even could. No one such as a parent ever consented on their behalf,” Travis Lenkner, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, told Yahoo Finance.
In the complaint filed by two law firms, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Keller Lenkner, on behalf of an unnamed minor and other similarly situated children, plaintiffs criticize Amazon’s methods, alleging that the company, despite having the choice to scramble or encrypt user voices, instead retains, analyzes, and uses actual voice recordings so that it can deploy them for commercial benefit.
“Amazon purports to obtain consent to record individuals who set up an Alexa-enabled device,” the complaint states. “But 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 voiceprinting them: children.”
Children, the lawsuit argues, are not only incapable of consenting to such use, but Alexa’s Terms of Service Agreement fails to obtain, explicitly or otherwise, the consent of childrens’ parents or guardians.
“It's crystal clear that the [user] agreement doesn't say, ‘we're recording everybody, and you're consenting on behalf of your kids,’” Lenkner, the plaintiffs’ attorney, told Yahoo FInance.
‘It builds voiceprints of individual users’
Amazon is “allowing workers around the world to listen to the voice recordings and creating voiceprints of the users, which can be used to identify them when they speak to other devices in other locations,” the lawsuit states.
“It builds voiceprints of individual users,” Lenkner said. “So if a child uses an Alexa device in California, and then uses another one in Washington, Amazon theoretically knows it’s the same person.” The device creates a unique identity for each person based on their voice, he said.
The legal theory is based on privacy statues in eight states — Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington — that prohibit recording conversations without obtaining permission from the parties being recorded. A similar state lawsuit was filed in California, which also requires two-party consent.
“Every recording that is made of a child, by Amazon through the Alexa software in one of these nine states is ... a per se violation of the privacy laws of those states and carries statutory penalties along with it,” Lenker said.
In a statement provided to Yahoo Finance, by email, an Amazon spokesperson said, “Amazon has a longstanding commitment to preserving the trust of our customers and their families, and we have strict measures and protocols in place to protect their security and privacy. For customers with kids, we offer FreeTime on Alexa, a free service that provides parental controls and ways for families to learn and have fun together.”
The company also provided this link, where it says consumers can learn more about the FreeTime service.
According to the plaintiffs, Amazon’s alleged violations are made more egregious by its choice to create and retain voice recordings, even though they maintain that the company does not need to do so in order for Alexa to function properly. Other similar technologies, Lenkner said, don't make such recordings.
“[Amazon] pays millions of dollars to keep these recordings around. It's not doing that for nothing,” he said.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages as well as an injunction that would require Amazon and the company’s subsidiaries, a2z Development Center and Amazon Lab126, to immediately erase all recordings of those who are identified as class members, as well as discontinue recording all conversations at issue.
For the purpose of the complaints, devices targeted at children, such as Echo Kids, are not included, nor are allegations contained in a complaint filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, alleging that Echo Dot Kids violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, a federal privacy law.
Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced and reported for CNN and is a former litigation attorney. Follow on Twitter @alexiskweed.