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What the Echo Dot Kids Is Really Teaching Us

By Cait Etherington
May 15, 2019

As privacy continues to become a growing concern for Americans, it is not entirely surprising that Amazon’s voice-activated devices are coming under increased scrutiny. Last week, a coalition of child protection and privacy groups known as Echo Kids Privacy filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Amazon Echo Dot Kids.

Amazon Echo Dot Kids

If you haven’t heard about Amazon Echo Dot Kids, it is a child-friendly version of the Amazon Echo Dot–a tiny voice activated speaker built for the home. Like the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot Kids is small, but it is also wrapped in a durable rubber container–presumably, to prevent damage from drops and spills.

As with other Amazon voice-activated devices, Echo Dot Kids enables you to talk to Alexa but in this case Alexa has a few other tricks to offer. You can play a game of Freeze Dancers with Alexa (yes, it’s what you think–you dance until Alexa stops playing music and you freeze in your pose), ask Alexa to share a joke (though a review in Wired suggests the jokes don’t quite work with young children), or ask Alexa to share a story. Parents can also set controls on their Echo Dot Kids to ensure the device is only available at certain times and only offers age-appropriate content.

All of this may sounds relatively innocuous, but as it turns out, the Echo Dot Kids may be a bit more sinister than it looks at first site.

Concerns That Echo Dot Kids’ Compromises Privacy and Safety

Like other Echo devices, the Echo Dot Kids is always listening and recording our speech. But since the device is intended for children, it is subject to different privacy regulations–regulations specifically intended to protect children from commercial exploitation online–and this is the basis of the current complaint against Amazon.

The complaint, which can be accessed on the Echo Kids Privacy website, lays out several key concerns about the Echo Dot Kids. First, the coalition, which includes Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy, maintains that Amazon’s process for reviewing personal information places “undue burden on parents.” The coalition also argues that Amazon’s parental consent mechanism has no way of verifying whether or not the person giving consent is the parent of the child.

Amazon keeps children’s personal information longer than reasonably necessary. The company does not disclose which kid skills (developed by 3rd parties) collect personal information or what type of information they collect. In fact, Amazon simply tells parents to read the privacy policy of each kid skill, but only a small fraction (about 14% of skills) offer privacy policies.

But the problems don’t end there. As the complaint further notes, if your child has a friend over for a playdate, they may also be recorded, but Amazon does not give notice or obtain parental consent before recording the voices of children that do not live in the home.

Finally, what if you have purchased an Echo Dots Kids but then want to delete your child’s information? As it turns out, Amazon also makes this process extremely onerous. As the coalition states in its official complaint, “Amazon fails to clearly explain how to delete information collected about children through Echo Dot Kids Edition. Our tests revealed that deleting voice recordings or individual items in the activity screen does not actually delete the underlying information.” The coalition further notes, “Amazon’s website and literature directs parents trying to delete information collected about their child to the voice recording deletion page and fails to disclose that deleting voice recordings does not delete the underlying information. This is a material omission likely to mislead reasonable parents.”

What’s the Real Lesson Here?

Despite Amazon’s suggestions that the Echo Dot Kids holds potential to support a child’s education and development, the Echo Dot Kids is arguably little more than an entertainment device that children can easily access even before they are old enough to read or adeptly engage with a touch screen. So, what’s the real lesson? It may be is that children growing up today will be hard pressed to avoid having their everyday lives recorded without their knowledge. The current Echo Kids Privacy complaint also suggests that deleting digital traces of one’s childhood will likely be an uphill battle as today’s children grow up.

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash.