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Amazon Settles $25 Million with DOJ and FTC over Child Privacy Violations

In a groundbreaking settlement, Amazon has agreed to pay $25 million to the Justice Department (DOJ) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for alleged violations of federal children’s privacy laws through its popular Alexa personal assistant platform.

Violations of Children’s Privacy Laws

The DOJ and FTC accused Amazon of breaching the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA Rule), and the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) concerning its voice assistant, Alexa. The government claimed that Alexa unlawfully stored children’s voice recordings and information about their locations, even refusing at times to delete this data upon parental request.

The Role of Alexa in Violations

Alexa, a voice-activated service offered by Amazon through its Echo smart speakers and the “Alexa App,” includes offerings targeted at children under 13 years of age. Since May 2018, voice-activated products and services directed toward children have been available on Alexa. When users make verbal requests to an Alexa-enabled device, Amazon retains both the voice recording and a written transcript of the request.

The Allegations Against Amazon

The complaint filed by the government in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington asserted that since May 2018, Amazon had violated the FTC Act, COPPA, and the COPPA Rule with respect to Alexa and its child-directed offerings. One of the key allegations was that Amazon kept children’s voice recordings indefinitely, a direct violation of COPPA’s requirement that such recordings should only be retained for as long as necessary to fulfill their intended purposes.

Deceptive Representations and Unfair Practices

The complaint further accused Amazon of making deceptive representations to Alexa app users about their ability to delete voice recordings and geolocation information. On some occasions, Amazon failed to fully delete such information upon user requests. Additionally, Amazon engaged in unfair privacy practices by not honoring users’ deletion requests for geolocation information and voice recordings, without notifying the consumers about it.

Government’s Response

Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the DOJ’s Civil Division, emphasized that the settlement reflects the department’s commitment to safeguarding children online. He stressed that companies must not misrepresent how they handle, retain, or delete children’s personal information and should not retain such data for longer than reasonably necessary.

Director Samuel Levine of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection echoed these sentiments, stating that Amazon’s actions violated COPPA’s prohibition on keeping children’s data indefinitely. He emphasized that such data retention is unacceptable, especially when used for training algorithms.

Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman for the Western District of Washington highlighted the importance of parental control over their children’s data. While some parents may choose to keep recordings for sentimental reasons, it should be their choice, not dictated by Amazon.

Terms of the Settlement

The federal district court entered a stipulated order as part of the settlement. It requires Amazon to identify and delete inactive child profiles, profiles that have not been used for 18 months, unless a parent requests retention. Additionally, Amazon must notify parents about this change in policies.

The order also bars Amazon from making any misrepresentations about its retention, access, or deletion of geolocation and voice information, including children’s voice data. It further mandates the deletion of geolocation information, voice recordings, and children’s personal data upon user or parental request, respectively. Amazon will be required to make disclosures to consumers regarding its retention and deletion practices for Alexa App geolocation and voice information.

Ensuring Child Privacy Protection

This settlement marks a significant step in holding tech companies accountable for their data handling practices, especially concerning children’s privacy. The DOJ and FTC’s action sends a clear message that privacy violations targeting vulnerable users, such as children, will not be tolerated. With this resolution, Amazon will need to improve its privacy policies and practices to ensure better protection for young users and provide parents with greater control over their children’s data.

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