What’s the best way to keep adults from questioning the use of a deeply problematic product? Get them started when they’re too young to question anything. Amazon has a new addition to its line of voice-commanded artificial intelligence Alexa assistants, marketed for use by children as young as 5 years old, who can barely grasp a box of juice, let alone digital privacy. Now, a coalition of children’s privacy and psychology advocates are warning parents away from Amazon’s latest, cutest device, saying it could normalize surveillance and harm children’s mental development.
The Echo Dot for kids is functionally identical to the Echo Dot for adults, except that it’s brightly colored and inexplicably costs $30 more than the grown-up version. Cosmetics aside, Echo Dot is still an AI-powered microphone that listens constantly for an activation keyword, relays a user’s voice to remote servers where it is analyzed and processed opaquely, and then responds to an increasingly long list of commands; on its packaging, Amazon highlights commands like “tell me a story” and “start SpongeBob.” Dot for kids will not only perpetually listen to and entertain your children, but attempt to teach them manners in your stead: “Alexa even provides positive feedback when kids ask questions and remember to say ‘please,’” says Amazon.
But a group of experts says Amazon’s little Play-Doh-colored pucks have no place near children. A statement released today by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, or CCFC, which previously led a prominent campaign against a version of Facebook Messenger aimed at kids, claims that Dot for kids and its ability to streamline a kid’s interaction with brands “pose significant threats to children’s wellbeing and privacy.” The CCFC statement is joined by critical letters from Sen. Edward Markey and Rep. Joe Barton. According to the CCFC’s Executive Director Josh Golin, “Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night. … AI devices raise a host of privacy concerns and interfere with the face-to-face interactions and self-driven play that children need to thrive.” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which co-signed the statement, added his concerns:
Commercially-produced voice-recognition technologies, such as Amazon Echo, are primarily designed to promote products and brands. Amazon is acting irresponsibly by urging parents to unleash an AI-driven Alexa product into their children’s lives, without first ensuring that it will not harm their cognitive and emotional development. Echo Dot Kids is designed to encourage children to give up their personal information so it can drive even more revenues for the E-Commerce colossus.
In particular, Amazon’s relatively cheap devices, including Kindle and Echo, are more or less openly a play at getting consumers locked into the Amazon Prime ecosystem of services, serving as a firehose of Amazon-licensed content and, of course, an easy way to buy goods from the megastore.
Amazon provided counter-statements to both the CCFC statement and the congressional letter, stating that the company “will be working directly with the Senator’s office to address each question, and that “Amazon takes privacy and security seriously.” Amazon also touted the “communal nature” of Dot for Kids:
Technology– in general – isn’t a replacement for parenting or social connection. One of the great things about Alexa and Echo is the communal nature of the device – parents and kids can join in the learning and fun together. We believe one of the core benefits of FreeTime and FreeTime Unlimited is that the services provide parents the tools they need to help manage the interactions between their child and Alexa as they see fit. For example, parents can review and listen to all their children’s voice recordings in the Alexa app, they can also review FreeTime Unlimited activity via the Parent Dashboard, and set bedtime limits or pause the device whenever they’d like.
The CCFC statement includes critical statements from a variety of experts in a variety of fields, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle, developmental pediatrician Jenny Radesky, and Kade Crockford of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who stressed that “children cannot consent to the type of surveillance a device like this will perform on them. They are too young to understand what it means to provide Amazon and potentially numerous other entities with their sensitive information, or to understand what it means to interact with artificial intelligence.”