By Benjamin Romano

The Seattle Times

Amazon favors regulating facial-recognition tech

Amazon has joined the ranks of other technology companies, including Microsoft and Google, in acknowledging the risks of facial-recognition software and calling on the federal government to impose regulations. Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy said Monday that he welcomed federal legislation limiting misuse while at Recode’s Code 2019 conference in Arizona. “Whether it’s private-sector companies or our police forces, you have to be accountable for your actions,” Jassy said. Amazon Rekognition can identify faces in photos and videos.

— The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A lawsuit filed in Seattle Tuesday alleges Amazon is recording children who use its Alexa devices without their consent, in violation of laws governing recordings in at least eight states, including Washington.

“Alexa routinely records and voiceprints millions of children without their consent or the consent of their parents,” according to a complaint filed on behalf of a 10-year-old Massachusetts girl on Tuesday in federal court in Seattle.

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, describes Amazon’s practice of saving “a permanent recording of the user’s voice” and contrasts that practice with other makers of voice-controlled computing devices that delete recordings after storing them for a short time or not at all.

The complaint notes that Alexa devices record and transmit any speech captured after a “wake word” activates the device, regardless of the speaker and whether that person purchased the device or installed the associated app.

It says the Alexa system is capable of identifying individual speakers based on their voice, and Amazon could choose to inform users who had not previously consented that they were being recorded and ask for consent. It could also deactivate permanent recording for users who had not consented.

“But Alexa does not do this,” the lawsuit claims. “At no point does Amazon warn unregistered users that it is creating persistent voice recordings of their Alexa interactions, let alone obtain their consent to do so.”

It alleges Amazon’s failure to obtain consent violates laws of Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington, which require informed consent of all parties to a recording, regardless of age.

The proposed class only includes minors in those states “who have used Alexa in their home and have therefore been recorded by Amazon, without consent.”

Aside from “the unique privacy interest” involved in recording someone’s voice, the lawsuit says, “It takes no great leap of imagination to be concerned that Amazon is developing voiceprints for millions of children that could allow the company (and potentially governments) to track a child’s use of Alexa-enabled devices in multiple locations and match those uses with a vast level of detail about the child’s life, ranging from private questions they have asked Alexa to the products they have used in their home.”

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.

The suit asks a judge to certify the class action and rule that Amazon violated state laws, require it to delete all recordings of class members and prevent further recording without prior consent. It seeks damages to be determined at trial.

The lawsuit claims Amazon is analyzing and using the recordings it captures through Alexa to benefit its business, and “has strong commercial incentives to collect as many Alexa recordings as possible.”

The complaint cites reporting earlier this year from Bloomberg that revealed Amazon employees and contractors individually review thousands of audio clips recorded by Alexa devices. Amazon said the human reviewers “annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order improve the customer experience.” In a list of frequently asked questions about Alexa, Amazon says Alexa requests are used for training. Users can opt out of this use in the privacy settings for Alexa.