In a significant move, Amazon has agreed to pay a total of $30.8 million to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as settlement for two separate privacy cases involving its Alexa voice assistant and Ring cameras. While the fine for the Ring case was smaller, it is the one that will likely raise more concerns among consumers. An Amazon employee and contractor settled for $5.8 million over allegations that footage was used to train algorithms and spy on customers without them knowing.
According to the complaint, there was one particularly troubling incident. During a three-month period in 2017, a male employee accessed "thousands of video recordings belonging to at least 81 unique female users," specifically targeting cameras in supposedly private spaces such as "Master Bedroom," "Master Bathroom," and "Spy Cam."
Initially, when a female employee reported the incident, a supervisor dismissed it as "normal for an engineer to view so many accounts." However, when the supervisor discovered that the employee was only viewing videos of women, Ring took action and terminated the employee.
The complaint also highlighted instances of camera hacking, enabling hackers not only to spy but also to communicate directly with victims through the camera's speaker. The report documented racial slurs, sexual propositions, threats, and even attempted Bitcoin extortion. Although Ring cannot entirely prevent hacking, the report suggests that many incidents were a result of weak passwords, indicating that Amazon should do more to enforce stronger security measures.
In addition to the financial settlement, Ring will implement a new data security program as part of the agreement. Ring responded to the settlement by stating that it had already addressed these issues independently years ago, well before the FTC began its inquiry. While Amazon disagrees with the allegations and denies any violation of the law, the settlement allows the company to put this matter behind and refocus on customer innovation.
It is estimated that Amazon will pay $20.5 million for its Alexa voice assistant in the second settlement. A complaint alleges that Amazon violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which restricts data collection from children under 13 without consent from parents.
According to the complaint, Amazon would retain smart-speaker-collected recordings of children indefinitely unless specifically instructed by users to delete them. In some cases, even when deletion requests were made, the company reportedly ignored them and retained the data for its own use.
In addition to the payment, the settlement requires Amazon to delete voice recordings and geolocation data in accordance with user requests. The company is also prohibited from using such data to train its algorithms. Amazon will notify consumers about the settlement and implement a privacy program for geolocation data.
Amazon defended itself, stating that it had designed Alexa with strong privacy protections and customer controls and had ensured compliance with COPPA when expanding Amazon Kids to include Alexa. As part of the settlement, Amazon agreed to make a minor adjustment to its existing practices, removing child profiles that have been inactive for more than 18 months unless parents or guardians choose to retain them.
Amazon's settlement with the FTC addresses privacy concerns surrounding its Alexa voice assistant and Ring cameras. As a result of agreeing to the fines and implementing privacy programs, Amazon demonstrates its commitment to protecting user privacy and correcting its practices. In the ever-evolving digital landscape, robust security measures and constant vigilance are essential to ensuring privacy.