Amazon to pay $30M in FTC settlements over Alexa, Ring privacy violations
By Trevor Mogg, May 31, 2023
Amazon has agreed to pay $25 million to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to settle charges over privacy violations linked to its digital assistant, Alexa.
In a separate case, Amazon-owned Ring will pay $5.8 million for violations of users’ privacy.
First, let’s look at the Alexa case. It involves alleged violations of children’s privacy rights, with the tech giant accused of keeping recordings of voice interactions with Alexa for years after they were made, along with location history, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
The proposed settlement, filed by the Department of Justice on behalf of the FTC, means that besides the payment, Amazon will have to delete inactive child accounts along with stored voice recordings and geolocation information. Amazon would also be barred from using the data to train its algorithms (customers can already choose not to have their voice recordings used to help improve Alexa in the Alexa app or online). The proposed order must be approved by the federal court to go into effect.
“Children’s speech patterns and accents differ from those of adults, so the unlawfully retained voice recordings provided Amazon with a valuable database for training the Alexa algorithm to understand children, benefitting its bottom line at the expense of children’s privacy,” the FTC said.
Commenting on the case, Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a release: “Amazon’s history of misleading parents, keeping children’s recordings indefinitely, and flouting parents’ deletion requests violated COPPA and sacrificed privacy for profits. COPPA does not allow companies to keep children’s data forever for any reason, and certainly not to train their algorithms.”
A separate suit filed by the FTC accuses Amazon’s Ring doorbell unit of violating part of the FTC Act banning unfair or deceptive business practices. Amazon has chosen to settle by agreeing to pay the agency $5.8 million.
The FTC said Ring misled customers by failing to restrict employees’ and contractors’ access to customers’ videos, and by using those videos to train algorithms, without obtaining consent.
Offering an example, it said that one employee “over several months viewed thousands of video recordings belonging to female users of Ring cameras that surveilled intimate spaces in their homes such as their bathrooms or bedrooms.” The employee was only stopped when another employee discovered the misconduct.
According to the proposed settlement terms, Ring will have to erase customer videos and data collected from an individual’s face that it obtained before 2018.
Responding to both cases, Amazon said: “Our devices and services are built to protect customers’ privacy, and to provide customers with control over their experience. While we disagree with the FTC’s claims regarding both Alexa and Ring, and deny violating the law, these settlements put these matters behind us.”
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