Amazon’s voice assistant listens far more often than people might know. Alexa does not only pick up the voices of adults who consciously interact with the system, but also those of others who do not know the assistant is recording them. That could be a visitor or a minor.
This function of Alexa is now subject of a report by the Research Service of the German parliament, the Bundestag. The service is impartial, researching and analysing information on behalf of committees and by request of members of parliament. The paper examines whether the recording, transcription and evaluation of voice recordings by Amazon are legal under German law.
When Alexa is first installed, users must give their consent to the processing and storage of their data. The mandatory information about the use and administration of their data is described sufficiently on Amazon’s website and in the Alexa app, according to the experts. Users can manage and delete the stored data in their profile. However, it remains unclear for how long Amazon stores the voice recordings and how often the software records unintended noises and conversations.
Recordings without consent
The legal experts of the Bundestag are particularly concerned that Alexa frequently records non-users. This could concern visitors who do not know there is a device listening to them in the household, or playing children who reveal personal information. As soon as the software believes to hear the activation prompts „Alexa“, „computer“ or „echo“, it begins recording. If the person has previously given consent or not does not make a difference.
The scientific service also describes incidents in which Alexa started voice recordings without user prompt. Even if the software notices a „false alarm“ – such as a misunderstood word or a radio sound – the recording is transcribed and stored. In its report, the research service refers to a case in which Alexa accidentally recorded the personal conversation of an American couple and sent it to a mobile phone contact.
On being questioned by news website heise.de, Amazon referred to the mute button of the device and the option to listen to and delete all unwanted recordings. However, the technology company did not address the question of child protection.
Amazon leaves essential questions unanswered
David Limp, Amazon’s Senior Vice President, told the BBC that children under the age of 13 need the consent of their parents before using Alexa. Parents can use their credit card information to verify their children, he pointed out.
The parents of an 8-year-old boy from Los Angeles as well as those of a 10-year-old girl from Seattle are currently suing the online tech company because Alexa recorded and stored their children’s voices without their consent. „Amazon never warns unregistered users that their interactions with Alexa will be recorded,“ the indictment says.
Alexa also uses accidental recordings
A Bloomberg report from earlier this year also raises considerable doubts about the legal conformity of the smart speaker. Journalists revealed that the recordings are not only processed by machines, but are also listened to by employees of Amazon or the company’s subcontractors. A Bloomberg source confirmed that accidental recordings are also transcribed and evaluated in order to improve the speech recognition of the software.
In an interview with Zeit Online, Amazon vice-president Limp confirmed that the company would „never sell“ the data due to possible image damages. The lawyers of the research service doubt this statement. It remains unclear for what purposes Amazon could use the sensitive data of its users in the future, they write.
A few months ago Amazon launched the Echo Dot Kids Edition on the US market. This allows parents to manually restrict the functions their children are allowed to use. However, even this version lacks a function that only allows the recording of their own children and not that of the voices of playmates.
According to the Bundestag legal experts, Amazon fulfills its obligation to provide information to registered users in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, the legal admissibility of storing recordings by third parties and minors is still a grey area. The new technologies of voice recognition, says the report, „will bring new challenges to data protection“.