What the Amazon Alexa settlement means for parents


In the nearly ten years since Amazon launched its Alexa voice assistant, children have learned to embrace the always-on technology. They shout commands to Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant without thinking twice, asking it to play music, tell them stories or make silly jokes.

The tech’s popularity has grown in spite of privacy concerns and lawsuits. In May, the company said it had already sold more than half a billion Alexa devices.

This week, the Federal Trade Commission settled a lawsuit against Amazon over the company’s alleged failure to delete recordings of children when it should have. Regulators said Amazon would pay $25 million for violating federal child privacy laws.

(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Here is what parents need to know about protecting their children’s privacy when it comes to using voice assistants:

Stop smart speakers from saving your recordings

If parents decide to allow devices with cameras and microphones into their homes, the first thing they should do is adjust privacy and security settings.

Once you have an Alexa-enabled device like an Amazon Echo, open the Alexa app on your smartphone or tablet and go to Settings → Alexa Privacy → Manage your Alexa Data → Choose how long to save recordings. Select “Don’t save recordings” and hit confirm. Delete past recordings in the Alexa Privacy section, including your voice history and history of detected sounds.

While you’re in Settings, turn off interest-based ads, the option to improve Alexa with your recordings, and the option for Amazon to use your Alexa messages to improve transcription. Finally, disable Voice Purchasing lest you end up with a pile of Amazon orders your kids made.

If you have an Echo Show or other device with a camera built in, make sure the cover is over the camera at all times unless you are using the device for video calls.

Teach your kids about how the tech works

Children don’t really question why a gentle disembodied voice does their bidding, but they probably should. To help them make the right choices around technology, tell them a little about how it works, who owns it and any potential downsides of using it.

Depending on their age, you can tell them how private companies collect data from tablets, smartphones, watches and speakers — everything from their YouTube history to physical location.

Turn on parental controls

Alexa makes an Echo just for kids that comes in cute animal designs and is supposed to give only kid friendly replies. It also lets you make profiles for everyone in your family for use across devices.

You can set up parental controls in Alexa settings by going to parents.amazon.com. There are options for daily time limits and filtering content by factors like their age.

Keep in mind that to use kids’ profiles you are giving Amazon consent to collect some data about your children. It’s required to use some of the kid-specific features on Alexa-enabled devices.

Know what the lawsuit means for you

If you are a parent and your family used to use Alexa and the settlement has made you anxious, know that the company is now required to delete all inactive profiles and associated data.

Amazon is also now required to actually delete data when parents make a request, so if your family still uses Alexa and you want to do that, follow the instructions above.

Parents should also look out for updates from Amazon, which is now required to tell customers about the settlement as well as make them aware of “its retention and deletion practices.” The company will also be creating a privacy program specifically targeted at protecting geolocation data.

The FTC said the recordings helped Amazon create “a valuable database for training the Alexa algorithm to understand children.”

“Our devices and services are built to protect customers’ privacy, and to provide customers with control over their experience,” said Amazon spokeswoman Parmita Choudhury in a statement. “While we disagree with the FTC’s claims…and deny violating the law, these settlements put these matters behind us.”

As for that $25 million settlement, it will not go to impacted families. Instead, like all Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act penalties, it will go straight to the U.S. Treasury.



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