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.
After four years of research and debate, the Federal Trade Commission has updated the Children’s Online Privacy Prevention Act with much stricter rules that hit internet advertisers right in the moneymaker. Written originally in 1998, COPPA was enacted to protect minors under the age of 13 by requiring any company collecting data on that demographic to adhere to strict privacy protection guidelines as well as putting well defined limits on advertising and marketing targeting minors. Since 2000, when it first went into effect, the internet and online advertising has changed significantly, and the FTC has amended COPPA, over the strenous objections from the industries affected.
What this means for you:
Whether you are a parent or an organization who markets to this particular demographic, you should take a moment to understand how COPPA may impact you. The new rules have been expanded in the following ways:
- The guidelines now include a wide range of digital media and devices, including smartphones, tablets, mobile gaming devices and mobile apps.
- The definition of “Personal Information” (previously only protected was the child’s name, address and email) has been expanded to cover a larger variety of data types including: geolocation, photos, videos, recordings, screen names and cookies. Just about anything that could be used to identify or track a child has been included.
- In the case of any organization collecting information without consent, parents and guardians have a right to receive a full description of what was collected on their child and also the right to have that info be deleted immediately.
- Targeted advertising that is based on a minor’s online data profile are no longer permitted without parental/guardian consent.
The trick, of course, is paying attention to what your child is doing online, and especially to what they are seeing onscreen. Advertisers are extremely clever, and this segment of the market is extremely valuable to them. The howls of protest will soon subside as they devise even more subtle ways to get parents to open up their wallets. Caveat Emptor!
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net