Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition
Review date: Nov. 9, 2022
Amazon's Echo Dot for Kids comes with a cute owl or dragon face plastered on the round globe of the smart speaker. They're cute. They're also driven by Alexa, Amazon's sometimes helpful, sometimes creepy AI voice assistant. With the Echo Dot for Kids, parents get a few extra things beyond what the regular Echo Dot gives you, like a free year subscription to Amazon Kids+ ($4.99 per month after the free year), which has lots of kid-friendly content plus premium Alexa Skills. There's also parental controls accessible from the Parent Dashboard. Alexa can read your kid bedtime stories, answer all their questions, play games, and help them with their homework, all while helping Amazon potentially learn a lot about your kid. Hey Alexa, does privacy matter?
What could happen if something goes wrong?
Amazon proudly states they are not in the business of selling your personal information to others. True. But, Amazon doesn’t need to sell your data to others when they have their own advertising and retail juggernaut to use your data to sell you more stuff. Because Amazon is in the business of selling you more stuff. And it’s not just Amazon hoping to sell you stuff. Amazon has a whole program for others to sell you stuff on on their sites too. And those sellers get to use that data Amazon collects on you to target you with the stuff they want to sell. So, while Amazon might not be in the business of selling your personal information, they are in the business of selling access to your information to others to target ads to sell you more stuff.
With Amazon for Kids products, Amazon hopes to collect data on your child with your parental consent. They say they can collect things like name, birthdate, contact information (including phone numbers and e-mail addresses), voice, photos, videos, location, as well as certain activity and device information and identifiers (such as cookies, device serial numbers, and IP addresses)] of your child when they use this device. They use this information on your child to, among other things, provide personalized offerings and recommendations. Yes, they’re learning about your child to target your child with more stuff they’ll want you to buy. They do say they won’t serve third-party interest-based ads when your kids are using an Amazon child profile. So that’s something.
Also, as the parent with your regular, non-Amazon Kids account, Amazon likes to collect a bunch of data on you. Things like: records of your shopping habits, Alexa search requests, the TV shows you watch and when you watch them, the music you stream, the podcasts you listen to, when you turn your lights on and off, when you lock your doors, identifiers such as your name, address, phone numbers, or IP address, your age, gender, your location, audio and visual information like those Alexa-requests or photos you take, the names and numbers of people listed in your contacts. The list goes on and on and on.
And what do they do with all that personal information they collect on you? Well, they use it to target you advertising, of course. Lots and lots of advertising. They do say they don’t use information that personally identifies you to display interest-based ads (of course, we have to trust them on this). They also use your personal information to identify your preferences and personalize products and services to keep you using those products and services as much as possible. And they say they can share that personal information with a number of third parties.
Let’s talk for a minute about Alexa itself. Amazon's Echo Dot for Kids comes with Alexa always happy to help your kid. Amazon does make it possible to automatically delete voice recordings immediately after they are processed. So it’s good to teach your kid to say, “Hey Alexa, delete everything I said today” after they’ve played with Alexa. That's a nice feature after the controversy around human reviewers listening in to Alexa voice recordings. However, Amazon says when you delete your voice recordings, they still can keep data of the interactions those recordings triggered. So, if you buy a pregnancy test through Amazon Alexa, Amazon won't forget you bought that pregnancy test just because you ask them to delete the voice recording of that purchase. That record of the purchase is data they have on you going forward and may use to target you with ads for more stuff.
And then there are Alexa Skills, those little apps you use to interact with Alexa. These Skills can be developed by just about anyone with the, uhm, skill. And with too many of the Skills, third-party privacy policies are misleading, incomplete, or simply nonexistent, according to one recent study. When your data is processed by an Alexa Skill, deleting your voice recordings doesn’t delete the data the developer of that Skill collects on you. With over 100,000 Alexa Skills out there, many of them developed by third parties, now your data is floating around in places you might never have imagined.
Oh, let’s not forget Amazon’s track record at protecting and respecting their customers' data. That raises some red flags too. Here are a few of the problems we’ve seen over the last few years. There’s the Amazon employee who was caught stealing the personal information of over 100 million CapitolOne customers. And that’s not the only time Amazon employees with access to lots of customer data were caught leaking customers personal information. It’s happened quite a few times, actually. And then there’s the Alexa security bug that opened the door for hackers to potentially access users personal information and even their conversation history. These are some of the known privacy and security issues Amazon has had (there could be more unknown ones as well). And we get it, Amazon is a huge company with many products and employees and it’s impossible to secure everything's 100% of the time. But that’s the point. When you collect such a vast amount of personal information on people, you’ve got to be super, duper, extra careful to secure it everywhere, all the time. Amazon has shown they can’t always do that.
What’s the worst that could happen? Well, Amazon could get to know your kid's personal information pretty well and try to sell them stuff starting at a young age. Amazon will track your kid's habits unless you opt out--and if you opt out, that means you'll likely lose services and features you probably don't want to lose. You can request Amazon delete your child's data, which is nice. The only way to be absolutely sure all this data is deleted--both your child's and your own--is to delete your Amazon account completely. All in all, a product that can potentially collect this much data on young children, even with the protections Amazon puts in place, still worries us but they do seem better than non-Amazon Kid products at protecting data, so that's good.
One more note on Amazon from a privacy researcher’s point of view. Trying to read through Amazon’s crazy network of privacy policies, privacy FAQs, privacy statements, privacy notices, and privacy documentation for their vast empire is a nightmare. There are so many documents that link to other documents that link back even more documents that understanding and making sense of Amazon’s actual privacy practices feels almost impossible. We wonder if this is by design, to confuse us all so we just give up? Or, if maybe even Amazon’s own employees possibly don’t know and understand the vast network of privacy policies and documentation they have living all over the place? Regardless, this privacy researcher would love to see Amazon do better when it comes to making their privacy policies accessible to the consumers they impact.
Tips to protect yourself
- Set Alexa parental controls
- Opt your child out of as much personal data collection as possible
- Teach your child how to say, “Hey Alexa, delete everything I said today” after they're done playing with Alexa.
- Turn on "Do Not Send Voice Recordings"
- Turn the microphone off when you do not need it
- Regularly delete your voice history or set an auto-deletion of the old voice data
- Minimize usage of Alexa Skills to only the most trusted ones
- Set up Anonymous Mode when using the app to protect your data
- When starting a sign-up, do not agree to tracking of your data.
- Do not sign up with third-party accounts. Better just log in with email and strong password.
- Chose a strong password! You may use a password control tool like 1Password, KeePass etc
- Use your device privacy controls to limit access to your personal information via app (do not give access to your camera, microphone, images, location unless neccessary)
- Keep your app regularly updated
- Limit ad tracking via your device (eg on iPhone go to Privacy -> Advertising -> Limit ad tracking) and biggest ad networks (for Google, go to Google account and turn off ad personalization)
- Request your data be deleted once you stop using the app. Simply deleting an app from your device usually does not erase your personal data.
Can it snoop on me?
What can be used to sign up?
What data does the company collect?
Child's name, date of birth, gender, email, phone number
How does the company use this data?
How can you control your data?
What is the company’s known track record of protecting users’ data?
In August 2020, security researchers from Check Point pointed out a flaw in Amazon's Alexa smart home devices that could have allowed hackers access to personal information and conversation history. Amazon promptly fixed the bug.
In October 2020, Amazon fired an employee for leaking customer email addresses to an unnamed third party.
In October 2019, Forbes reported that Amazon employees were listening to Amazon Cloud Cam recording, to train its AI algorithm.
In April 2019, it was revealed that thousands of employees, many of whom are contract workers and some not even directly employed by Amazon, had access to both voice and text transcripts of Alexa interactions.
In 2018, Amazon's Echo Dot device recorded private conversation and sent it to random contact. The recording consisted of 1,700 audio files.
Child Privacy Information
Can this product be used offline?
User-friendly privacy information?
Amazon has a complicated and difficult to navigate mess of privacy policies, privacy notices, privacy FAQs, and other privacy information.
Links to privacy information
Does this product meet our Minimum Security Standards?
You will need to create a Child Profile. https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html?nodeId=G3MTGN25XVMNWTFX
Amazon has a bug bounty program, which means that anyone who finds a security issue and discloses it responsibly may get paid. Security researchers can report a vulnerability here.
Alexa provides some information about its AI at the Alexa FAQ and the Amazon Science webpages:
Is this AI untrustworthy?
What kind of decisions does the AI make about you or for you?
Amazon Alexa uses natural language processing to understand you and to generate answers to your requests.
Is the company transparent about how the AI works?
Does the user have control over the AI features?
What is Amazon Kids on Alexa, and how do I turn it on?TechRadar
Review: Amazon Echo Dot Kids EditionWired
'Alexa, are you invading my privacy?' – the dark side of our voice assistantsThe Guardian
Amazon Echo’s privacy issues go way beyond voice recordingsThe Conversation
Study Reveals Extent of Privacy Vulnerabilities With Amazon’s AlexaNC State University
Alexa vulnerability is a reminder to delete your voice historyCNET
Security Researchers Probed 90,194 Amazon Alexa Skills—The Results Were ShockingForbes
‘Millions of people’s data is at risk’ — Amazon insiders sound alarm over securityPolitico
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