Amazon To Pay $30m Over Alexa, Ring Privacy Violations

Amazon is to pay a multi-million dollar fine after two lawsuits from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over privacy violations with a couple of its products.

The FTC announced that Amazon has agreed to pay approximately $31 million to settle two federal lawsuits, which alleged Amazon violated users’ privacy – including that of children – via its Alexa voice assistant and its Ring doorbell cameras.

Amazon has run into privacy issues before. In August 2021 it was fined 746 million euros after it allegedly broke the EU’s GDPR data protection rules over the way it uses customers’ personal data for advertising purposes. Amazon is appealing that fine.

Ring

Ring fine

Amazon’s Silk browser also ran into trouble way back in 2011 over the way it collected users’ web surfing history, which resulted in Congressional scrutiny.

But fast forward 12 years, and Amazon is facing two separate FTC complaints about its Ring cameras, as well as its Alexa voice assistant.

Regarding the Ring camera, the FTC had charged Ring (owned by Amazon since 2018) with compromising its customers’ privacy by allowing any employee or contractor to access consumers’ private videos.

Amazon also allegedly failed to implement basic privacy and security protections, enabling hackers to take control of consumers’ accounts, cameras, and videos.

“Ring’s disregard for privacy and security exposed consumers to spying and harassment,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The FTC’s order makes clear that putting profit over privacy doesn’t pay.”

Under the FTC order, Ring is prohibited from profiting from unlawfully accessing consumers videos, and it will pay $5.8 million in consumer refunds.

Alexa fine

The second charge comes after both the FTC and DoJ charged Amazon with allegedly violating children’s privacy law (known as the COPPA law) by keeping kids’ Alexa voice recordings forever and undermining parents’ deletion requests.

The FTC and DoJ alleged that Amazon had prevented parents from exercising their deletion rights under the COPPA Rule, kept sensitive voice and geolocation data for years, and used it for its own purposes, while putting data at risk of harm from unnecessary access.

“Amazon’s history of misleading parents, keeping children’s recordings indefinitely, and flouting parents’ deletion requests violated COPPA and sacrificed privacy for profits,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “COPPA does not allow companies to keep children’s data forever for any reason, and certainly not to train their algorithms.”

Under the proposed federal court order, Amazon will be required to delete inactive child accounts and certain voice recordings and geolocation information and will be prohibited from using such data to train its algorithms.

In addition to the data deletion requirement in the proposed order, Amazon will be required to pay a $25 million civil penalty.

Amazon response

Amazon said it wished to settle the lawsuits, but it disagreed with the FTC allegations.

“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,” Amazon was quoted by CNN as saying in a statement Wednesday.

“We built Alexa with strong privacy protections and customer controls, designed Amazon Kids to comply with COPPA, and collaborated with the FTC before expanding Amazon Kids to include Alexa,” Amazon was quoted as saying in the statement.

“As part of the settlement, we agreed to make a small modification to our already strong practices, and will remove child profiles that have been inactive for more than 18 months unless a parent or guardian chooses to keep them,” Amazon reportedly said.

Ring privacy

Amazon has faced a number of privacy concerns over its Ring doorbells, after criticism that Ring’s products are being used by increasing numbers of law enforcement agencies in the US to facilitate surveillance and criminal profiling in cities and towns.

In November 2020 privacy activists expressed alarm when police in Jackson, Mississippi requested access to resident’s smart doorbells.

Privacy concerns were also raised when it emerged that Amazon keeps records of every motion detected by its Ring doorbells.

Amazon also turned every Echo speaker and Ring security camera or doorbell in the United States into a shared wireless IoT network (known as Amazon Sidewalk). And American users had just one week to opt out the proposal.

In March 2023 Amazon said it would allow third party devices to connect to Amazon Sidewalk network that has spread to over 90 percent of the US population.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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