For those of you who haven’t seen the Amazon Echo in action yet, it can be quite an eye opener. We are quickly converging on an environment that was not long ago considered science fiction. The Echo can quietly sit in the corner of your room, waiting for anyone in the family to give it a command, whether it’s to play some music, check the weather or order something from (surprise surprise!) Amazon. It’s also a perfect example of technology racing ahead of the law, and unlike the ongoing controversy around email and ECPA, the stakes are much higher because of who is allegedly at risk: our children. I’ll admit that this may seem a bit melodramatic, but the Guardian US isn’t wrong when pointing out that Echo and other products like it (think Apple’s Siri and Google Now) might actually be in violation of COPPA. For those of you in the room who are not lawyers, this is the Children’s Online Privacy & Protection Act of 1998 which, among many things, prohibits the recording and storage of a child’s voice without explicit permission of their parents or legal guardian.
What this means for you:
Even though I am a parent of young child for whom COPPA was enacted to protect, it hasn’t been too hard to suppress the urge to disconnect and discard every voice-activated, internet-connected device we own (which would be quite a few, including my daughter’s precious iPad). As with many technology items that dance on the edge of privacy invasion, I weigh the convenience and value they bring against the loss of privacy and security they inherently pose. I do see the problems technology like this presents: thousands (possibly millions) of parents set down products like Echo and Siri right in front of their children precisely because using them is simple and intuitive, and in the case of Echo, they are actually designed for use by everyone in the family. However, most people probably don’t realize that today’s voice recognition technology relies on pushing recordings of voice commands to the cloud where they are cataloged and processed to improve algorithms. Not only do those recordings store our children’s voices, they are also thick with meta data like marketing preferences, “Alexa, how much does that toy cost?” and location data, “Alexa, where is the nearest ice cream shop?” I’m pretty sure none of us gave explicit permission to Apple before allowing our kids to use Siri on their iPads and iPhones. If you were to adhere to a strict interpretation of COPPA, Apple, Amazon and Google (as well as many others) have an FTC violation on their hands that could cost them as much as $16,000 per incident.
As for your Echo (or smartphone or tablet) – only you should judge whether it’s an actual risk to your child. For the moment, the law is unclear, and knowing our government, likely to remain so long after the buying public makes up its own mind.