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The Resource Center Child Identity Theft & Protection The Resource Center | article

Virtual Assistants May Threaten Your Children’s Privacy

Are voice-activated smart devices compromising your children's privacy?

First, we controlled our computers with buttons. Then, mobile devices were equipped with highly accurate touch screens and the app became king. Now, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future will be voice activated.

Some of the world’s largest tech companies - namely, Google, Apple and Amazon - are racing to improve the performance of their virtual assistant software. While today’s users can tell Siri to carry out specific functions on their iPhones, the industry’s ultimate goal is to create highly-sophisticated artificial intelligence devices that are permanently connected to the larger internet. Amazon appears to have taken the lead for the time being thanks to Echo - a voice-enabled, wireless cylindrical speaker that can provide information to the user as well as control several home automation tools.

Released almost a year ago, the Amazon Echo was met with largely positive reviews, suggesting that it was paving the way toward more voice control in the home. CNet’s review credited the device for its listening abilities and ease of setup. Lifehacker suggested using it to listen to audiobooks and articles, or as a kitchen assistant.

But what do we sacrifice to gain access to these incredible futuristic capabilities? It could be our privacy, and that of our families.

Does the Amazon Echo violate U.S. privacy law?

In order for its voice recognition software features to function properly, the Amazon Echo and other similar devices like it must capture and store recordings of a user’s voice. Though it spends most of its time in a dormant sleep state, Echo is constantly listening for a “wake word” that will instantly activate it. From that point on, the device will listen to what you say and transfer this information to the cloud, where Amazon’s web services determine the best way to answer your query or carry out your requested function.

Privacy advocates are understandably concerned about all of this information being sent to the cloud, given that Amazon has been less than forthcoming about its encryption policies, or whether it uses the information gleaned from speakers to feed advertising back to you. But they are particularly worried about how children might interact with such a device. In fact, The Guardian reported that the Amazon Echo may violate the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which governs how private companies can handle information collected from those under the age of 13.

Specifically, COPPA forbids companies from storing voice recordings of children without parental consent. Taken to its logical conclusion, enforcement of this law would make it difficult, if not impossible, for youths under the age of 13 to use most of the device’s features. Even so, fears that existing laws will not do enough to protect children remain.

“Parents cannot reasonably review all the information that these ‘always on’ devices are collecting from children,” Khaliah Barnes, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The Guardian. “Then what about data security, hacking or when you walk into a home and you’re not aware there’s a recording device there? Do we want to live in a society that conditions children to constant surveillance?”

As Apple prepares to expand the capabilities of Siri and Google does the same for its Google Now program, parents need to be more aware of which devices may be recording their children. Protecting their privacy from hackers and potential identity thieves is paramount.

It’s important to be proactive, because privacy risks are everywhere and they're not always easy to spot. We'll continue to keep you updated as this conversation unfolds, until then remember to be vigilant about protection your identity and privacy. An identity theft protection service like Identity Guard can help by monitoring your credit files, Social Security Number and public records. Our service will alert you to certain activity in your credit file that could be indicative of fraud, allowing you to take action immediately.