Lawmakers, child development experts, and privacy advocates are expressing concerns about two new Amazon products targeting children, questioning whether they prod kids to be too dependent on technology and potentially jeopardize their privacy.
In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Friday, two members of the bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus raised concerns about Amazon’s smart speaker Echo Dot Kids and a companion service called FreeTime Unlimited that lets kids access a children’s version of Alexa, Amazon’s voice-controlled digital assistant.
“While these types of artificial intelligence and voice recognition technology offer potentially new educational and entertainment opportunities, Americans’ privacy, particularly children’s privacy, must be paramount,” wrote Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), both cofounders of the privacy caucus.
The letter includes a dozen questions, including requests for details about how audio of children’s interactions is recorded and saved, parental control over deleting recordings, a list of third parties with access to the data, whether data will be used for marketing purposes, and Amazon’s intentions on maintaining a profile on kids who use these products.
In a statement, Amazon said it “takes privacy and security seriously.” The company said “Echo Dot Kids Edition uses on-device software to detect the wake word and only the wake word. Only once the wake word is detected does it start streaming to the cloud, and it will present a visual indication (the light ring at the top of the device turns blue) to show that it is streaming to the cloud.”
Echo Dot Kids is the latest in a wave of products from dominant tech players targeting children, including Facebook’s communications app Messenger Kids and Google’s YouTube Kids, both of which have been criticized by child health experts concerned about privacy and developmental issues.
Like Amazon, toy manufacturers are also interested in developing smart speakers that would live in a child’s room. In September, Mattel pulled Aristotle, a smart speaker and digital assistant aimed at children, after a similar letter from Markey and Barton, as well as a petition that garnered more than 15,000 signatures.
One of the organizers of the petition, the nonprofit group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, is now spearheading a similar effort against Amazon. In a press release Friday, timed to the letter from Congress, a group of child development and privacy advocates urged parents not to purchase Echo Dot Kids because the device and companion voice service pose a threat to children’s privacy and well-being.
“Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night,” said the group’s executive director Josh Golin. “The Echo Dot Kids is another unnecessary ‘must-have’ gadget, and it’s also potentially harmful. AI devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive.”
FreeTime on Alexa includes content targeted at children, like kids’ books and Alexa skills from Disney, Nickelodeon, and National Geographic. It also features parental controls, such as song filtering, bedtime limits, disabled voice purchasing, and positive reinforcement for using the word “please.”
Despite such controls, the child health experts warning against Echo Dot Kids wrote, “Ultimately, though, the device is designed to make kids dependent on Alexa for information and entertainment. Amazon even encourages kids to tell the device ‘Alexa, I’m bored,’ to which Alexa will respond with branded games and content.”
In Amazon’s April press release announcing Echo Dot Kids, the company quoted one representative from a nonprofit group focused on children that supported the product, Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Balkam referenced a report from his institute, which found that the majority of parents were comfortable with their child using a smart speaker. Although it was not noted in the press release, Amazon is a member of FOSI and has an executive on the board.
In a statement to WIRED, Amazon said, “We believe one of the core benefits of FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited is that the services provide parents the tools they need to help manage the interactions between their child and Alexa as they see fit.” Amazon said parents can review and listen to their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, review FreeTime Unlimited activity via the Parent Dashboard, set bedtime limits or pause the device whenever they’d like.
Balkam said his institute disclosed Amazon’s funding of its research on its website and the cover of its report. Amazon did not initiate the study. Balkam said the institute annually proposes a research project, and reaches out to its members, a group that also includes Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, who pay an annual stipend of $30,000. “Amazon stepped up and we worked with them. They gave us editorial control and we obviously gave them recognition for the financial support,” he said.
Balkam says Echo Dot Kids addresses concerns from parents about excessive screen time. “It’s screen-less, it’s very interactive, it’s kid friendly,” he said, pointing out Alexa skills that encourage kids to go outside.
In its review of the product, BuzzFeed wrote, “Unless your parents purge it, your Alexa will hold on to every bit of data you have ever given it, all the way back to the first things you shouted at it as a 2-year-old.”
Far From Sesame Street
Facebook funded most of the experts who vetted its Messenger Kids, an app for children as young as 6.
Child-health advocates asked Facebook to discontinue Messenger Kids, claiming it will undermine childhood development.
In a complaint to the FTC, child health and privacy groups allege that YouTube is violating a law that protects children online.