While most adult consumers have made peace with the fact that they will endure some amount of retailer tracking while they are online, those same adults get a lot less enthused when it is their kids being tracked instead.
Which means there may just be a brewing privacy problem within the Internet of Things, and with Amazon’s much loved Alexa.
And to be sure, Alexa has earned some serious mom bona fides – mommy bloggers are heavily supported by Amazon these days – and the advertising around Echo and Alexa has a decidedly family-friendly tone. In a recent ad, an Amazon dad ordered and Echo and then watches it grow into a near family member.
But biological friends and relations generally don’t report back on activities, but an always-on device surely does, and by its very nature it tracks the activities of the household’s youngest members. And records their voices.
And this makes some rather uncomfortable to the extent that it is now under investigation whether devices like the Echo are in fact violating childhood privacy laws.
And violating those rules is not cheap, according to reports in The Guardian, those found guilt could be fined millions of dollars for the collection of children’s data without explicit parental consent. Most in the hot seat are devices that record children’s voice commands, but offer parents no context on what they are being stored or used for.
“Just telling parents to take effective responsibility for the child isn’t sufficient,” said Jeffrey Chester, a lawyer who helped to craft the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which aims to protect the digital privacy of children under the age of 13. “Under COPPA, they need to know what’s being collected, how it will be used, they need to be provided with real informed consent to begin with.”
Echo is the best known device, but hardly the only one that has caught Chester’s eye. Siri, Google’s personal assistant and Cortana could also be on the hot seat here.
Also of concern, Chester notes, is the concerted attempt to aim advertising for these programs and devices at children. And he may just have a point; Apple’s Siri was advertised earlier this year with Cookie Monster, and Amazon has ads featuring young children asking Echo for new knock-knock jokes.
“The goal is to use these devices to feed into the ever-growing mass of information that’s being collected about us,” said Chester, who cites the potential of creating highly informed consumer profiles for individuals before they even reach their adult years. “These devices are not seen as protecting privacy, they are seen as new ways to undermine our privacy.”
Chester also noted that the current strategies for protecting against these issues is just insufficient.
And the problem is not without real world extensions. Recently, education technology companies like ETS, the firm behind the Common Core tests, were caught quietly collecting and selling data about students.
In the report “Learning to be Watched: Surveillance Culture at School,” published by the National Center for Education Policy, Facebook and Google are identified as two of the biggest culprits.
“This digital media that is driven by certain business models, that reward and incentivize certain behaviors … are fostering new social norms. You may not be thinking about whether this is the kind of society that we want to have here,”notes Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor and a co-writer of COPPA.