The German parliament has been warned by its official eggheads that Amazon's Alexa digital assistant may not be legal – because it stores voice recordings and overhears things it is not supposed to.
The Scientific Services of the German Bundestag was asked to take a look at how Alexa works and how the device fits within the country's current privacy laws. It concluded, in a report made public this week, that there is ample evidence that the Amazon device routinely records things it is not supposed to and that the internet giant stores those recordings far longer than it needs to. That raises some serious legal questions, the dossier notes.
While the gathering of information using users' voices is legally covered by the initial agreement that buyers make when they set up the Amazon machine, it is not at all clear that that agreement then covers people who are recorded by mistake, or other people that enter the same space as the device and are routinely recorded without having given any form of consent.
Those people – which the reports notes will include children – may not even know there is a device recording them. And children in particular may unwittingly reveal a lot of personal information that an adult would not, especially since many kids can't type queries into a computer and so will use their voice to ask questions.
The report [PDF] references several cases where people have been wrongly recorded – including a case where a man received a recording of a totally different couple, recordings being cited in a murder trial, and several lawsuits against Amazon for recording kids. It also notes that Amazon acknowledges that its system sometimes mishears the "wake word" and starts recording when people don't expect it to.
But, the report notes, Amazon makes no distinction between intended and accidental recordings, treating them both the same by storing the recording and creating a transcript from the data.
"The activation of the speech software happens regularly by mistake without the user noticing, according to media reports," the report says. "They are then collected and processed without the knowledge and consent of the user." As such, households with an Alexa device "are in a sense 'bugged,'" the boffins point out.
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It warns that it is "unclear" how to exclude the voice recordings of people that have not given their permission, or minors. And the report notes that it is not clear "what further purposes Amazon could use its data in the future."
Notably the report does not say that Amazon's approach is illegal but it does note that it sits very firmly in a legal gray area that needs to be look into in response to advances in voice recognition technology. "Voice recognition will pose additional challenges to privacy," it tells lawmakers.
Amazon typically responds to concerns about wrong recordings by pointing out that its Alexa products come with a mute button and that users can delete recordings themselves by accessing recordings through an app or browser. Critics say that is too little and too time-consuming to be an effective privacy barrier.
Germany, particularly the former East Germany, has a long and uncomfortable history of bugging civilians and misusing the results. As a result the country takes the issue very seriously. ®