Google, Amazon and Apple assistants may break federal child-protection law: report

Google’s new “Home” virtual assistant device, Amazon’s “Echo” device and Apple’s “Siri” may break federal child-protection law and expose the companies to millions of dollars in potential fines.

That’s the conclusion of an investigation by The Guardian newspaper, published Thursday.

Both Echo, which houses Amazon’s “Alexa” virtual assistant, and Google’s Home, which houses “Assistant,” are marketed at children, the paper pointed out. In a video promotion for Echo, a pre-teen girl is shown asking her father about the new device, asking, “Is it for me?” Dad responds, “It’s for everyone.” A Google video screened at its developers conference this month showcased Home, referring to it as “for the whole family” and showing a young girl and her even-younger brother asking questions of the device. Apple has run an ad for Siri showing a girl asking Siri a question, and the company has produced a Siri ad starring Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster.

All very sweet. And possibly illegal, according to the report, because the assistants may violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) regulating gathering and use of personal information from children under 13.

“This is part of the initial wave of marketing to children using the internet of things,” Jeff Chester, executive director of privacy group the Center for Digital Democracy, told The Guardian. “It is exactly why the law was enacted in the first place, to protect young people from pervasive data collection.”

The law applies to web services created for users below 13 or known to be used by kids below that age.

“Recording children in the privacy of the home is genuinely creepy, and this warrants additional investigation by the Federal Trade Commission and states,” Khaliah Barnes, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the paper.

Under the law, companies can’t store young children’s personal information, including voice recordings, without verifiable parental consent. “Although all three companies store audio files of voice requests in the cloud, none of them use a COPPA-approved method to seek consent beforehand,” The Guardian reported.

Breaking the act can bring fines up to $16,000 per violation, the paper said, noting that Yelp in 2014 paid $450,000 after it admitted to collecting kids’ personal information without telling their parents or receiving consent. The federal trade agency specifies that fines can depend on number of children affected and the size of the company – and Amazon has sold some 3 million Echo devices in the U.S. and Apple has sold more than 100 million iPhones, according to The Guardian.

Amazon, Google and Apple told the Guardian that they comply with the act, with Apple adding, “We don’t target kids,” according to the report.

Of course, one can ask Siri what Cookie Monster is. Siri helpfully supplies a Wikipedia entry explaining that Cookie Monster “is a Muppet on the long-running children’s television show Sesame Street.”

Photo: Cookie Monster with fruit on Sesame Street (Richard Termine, courtesy of PBS press website)

Tags: Alexa, amazon, amazon echo, Apple, children, Echo, fines, Google, google assistant, google home, law, Privacy