Alexa, does the Echo Dot Kids protect children’s privacy?

Alexa, does the Echo Dot Kids protect children’s privacy?

8:06am, 9th May, 2019
A coalition of child protection and privacy groups has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging it to investigate a kid-focused edition of smart speaker. The complaint against Amazon Echo Dot Kids, which has been lodged with the FTC by groups including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Consumer Federation of America, argues that the ecommerce giant is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa) — including by failing to obtain proper consents for the use of kids’ data. As with its other smart speaker Echo devices the Echo Dot Kids continually listens for a wake word and then responds to voice commands by recording and processing users’ speech. The difference with this Echo is it’s intended for children to use — which makes it subject to US privacy regulation intended to protect kids from commercial exploitation online. The complaint, which can be read in full via the group’s complaint , argues that Amazon fails to provide adequate information to parents about what personal data will be collected from their children when they use the Echo Dot Kids; how their information will be used; and which third parties it will be shared with — meaning parents do not have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to give consent for their child’s data to be processed. They also accuse Amazon of providing at best “unclear and confusing” information per its obligation under Coppa to also provide notice to parents to obtain consent for children’s information to be collected by third parties via the online service — such as those providing Alexa “skills” (aka apps the AI can interact with to expand its utility). A number of other concerns are also being raised about Amazon’s device with the FTC. Amazon released the Echo Dot Kids — and, as we noted at the time, it’s essentially a brightly bumpered iteration of the company’s standard Echo Dot hardware. There are differences in the software, though. In parallel Amazon updated its Alexa smart assistant — adding parental controls, aka its FreeTime software, to the child-focused smart speaker. Amazon said the free version of FreeTime that comes bundled with the Echo Dot Kids provides parents with controls to manage their kids’ use of the product, including device time limits; parental controls over skills and services; and the ability to view kids’ activity via a parental dashboard in the app. The software also removes the ability for Alexa to be used to make phone calls outside the home (while keeping an intercom functionality). A paid premium tier of FreeTime (called FreeTime Unlimited) also bundles additional kid-friendly content, including Audible books, ad-free radio stations from iHeartRadio Family, and premium skills and stories from the likes of Disney, National Geographic and . At the time it announced the Echo Dot Kids, Amazon said it had tweaked its voice assistant to support kid-focused interactions — saying it had trained the AI to understand children’s questions and speech patterns, and incorporated new answers targeted specifically at kids (such as jokes). But while the company was ploughing resource into adding a parental control layer to Echo and making Alexa’s speech recognition kid-friendly, the Coppa complaint argues it failed to pay enough attention to the data protection and privacy obligations that apply to products targeted at children — as the Echo Dot Kids clearly is. Or, to put it another way, Amazon offers parents some controls over how their children can interact with the product — but not enough controls over how Amazon (and others) can interact with their children’s data via the same always-on microphone. More specifically, the group argues that Amazon is failing to meet its obligation as the operator of a child-directed service to provide notice and obtain consent for third parties operating on the Alexa platform to use children’s data — noting that its Children’s Privacy Disclosure policy states it does not apply to third party services and skills. Instead the complaint says Amazon tells parents they should review the skill’s policies concerning data collection and use. “Our investigation found that only about 15% of kid skills provide a link to a privacy policy. Thus, Amazon’s notice to parents regarding data collection by third parties appears designed to discourage parental engagement and avoid Amazon’s responsibilities under Coppa,” the group writes in a summary of their complaint. They are also objecting to how Amazon is obtaining parental consent — arguing its system for doing so is inadequate because it’s merely asking that a credit or debit/debit gift card number be inputted. “It does not verify that the person “consenting” is the child’s parent as required by Coppa,” they argue. “Nor does Amazon verify that the person consenting is even an adult because it allows the use of debit gift cards and does not require a financial transaction for verification.” Another objection is that Amazon is retaining audio recordings of children’s voices far longer than necessary — keeping them indefinitely unless a parent actively goes in and deletes the recordings, despite Coppa requiring that children’s data be held for no longer than is reasonably necessary. They found that additional data (such as transcripts of audio recordings) was also still retained even after audio recordings had been deleted. A parent must contact Amazon customer service to explicitly request deletion of their child’s entire profile to remove that data residue — meaning that to delete all recorded kids’ data a parent has to nix their access to parental controls and their kids’ access to content provided via FreeTime — so the complaint argues that Amazon’s process for parents to delete children’s information is “unduly burdensome” too. Their investigation also found the company’s process for letting parents review children’s information to be similarly arduous, with no ability for parents to search the collected data — meaning they have to listen/read every recording of their child to understand what has been stored. They further highlights that children’s Echo Dot Kids’ audio recordings can of course include sensitive personal details — such as if a child uses Alexa’s ‘remember’ feature to ask the AI to remember personal data such as their address and contact details or personal health information like a food allergy. The group’s complaint also flags the risk of other children having their data collected and processed by Amazon without their parents consent — such as when a child has a friend or family member visiting on a playdate and they end up playing with the Echo together. Responding to the complaint, Amazon has denied it is in breach of Coppa. In a statement a company spokesperson said: “FreeTime on Alexa and Echo Dot Kids Edition are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Customers can find more information on Alexa and overall privacy practices here: .” An Amazon spokesperson also told us it only allows kid skills to collect personal information from children outside of FreeTime Unlimited (i.e. the paid tier) — and then only if the skill has a privacy policy and the developer separately obtains verified consent from the parent, adding that most kid skills do not have a privacy policy because they do not collect any personal information. At the time of writing the FTC had not responded to a request for comment on the complaint. Over in Europe, there has been growing over the use of children’s data by online services. A report by England’s children’s commissioner late last year warned kids are being “datafied”, and suggested profiling at such an early age could lead to a data-disadvantaged generation. Responding to rising concerns the UK privacy regulator launched a on a last month, asking for feedback on 16 proposed standards online services must meet to protect children’s privacy — including requiring that product makers put the best interests of the child at the fore, deliver transparent T&Cs, minimize data use and set high privacy defaults. The UK government has also recently published a Whitepaper setting out a which has a heavy focus on child safety.
Microsoft teams up with UNESCO and kids to revive lost monuments with Minecraft

Microsoft teams up with UNESCO and kids to revive lost monuments with Minecraft

2:30pm, 3rd May, 2019
Islamic State forces blew up the Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul, Iraq, as they withdrew from the city in 2017. (Photo Courtesy of History Blocks) Can a video game reclaim centuries’ worth of lost cultural heritage in the Middle East? Microsoft’s Minecraft Education Edition is being used to do just that, in league with UNESCO and schools around the world. History Blocks takes advantage of the educationally oriented Minecraft platform to build virtual versions of ancient monuments — starting with sites that were destroyed by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, and by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The project was conceived and developed by Agencia Africa in Brazil, and put to its first test this February at Escola Bosque, a private school in São Paulo. “It is surprising to see the level of the students’ engagement in the History Blocks project,” Escola Bosque’s pedagogical director, Silvia Scuracchio, said today in a news release. “At the same time that they solve complex geometry, logic and abstract challenges, it’s possible to see how they get involved with the culture and history behind the monuments and their destruction. For many of them, it was their first contact with concepts such as cultural destruction and ideology oppression.” Students aged from 9 to 13 built up their models from historical images of the , the and the entrance to the in Syria, as well as the and the in Iraq, and Afghanistan’s . Since February, the History Blocks project has been picked up by schools in more than 30 countries using the Minecraft Education Edition. “Technology is a tool to transform education and bring to life methods that used to be unthinkable when it comes to teaching,” said Daniel Maia, manager for academic projects at Microsoft Brazil. “The project on UNESCO’s world heritage sites opens the door for students all over the world to study important monuments of our history.” Minecraft and History Blocks are great teaching tools, but if you’re looking for high-fidelity models of heritage hotspots ranging from to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, they’re covered by other software and survey programs. The International Council on Monuments and Sites, a U.N. advisory panel also known as ICOMOS, is one of the leaders in the effort to document cultural sites. Over the past few years, ICOMOS’ (from the Arabic word for “phoenix”) has been conducting surveys of sites in Syria, starting with six representative buildings in Damascus. You can . A historical conservation initiative called is playing a key role in 3-D documentation, for Project Anqa as well as s around the world. CyArk’s detailed digital scans feed into Google Arts and Sciences’ . For a powerful demonstration of the technology, check ou in South Dakota. (But make sure your computer is powerful enough for the task.) Could virtual models provide enough information to rebuild lost monuments? Historians and architects certainly hope so: They’re banking on surveys of Notre Dame, including conducted several years ago under the leadership of the late art historian , to serve as a guide for the reconstruction ahead.
Flickr founder, top VCs invest in Seattle startup that sells used kids clothing at steep discounts

Flickr founder, top VCs invest in Seattle startup that sells used kids clothing at steep discounts

11:14am, 17th April, 2019
Kids on 45th CEO Elise Worthy. (Kids on 45th Photo) had long been Seattle’s most well-known and oldest children’s consignment store. But in 2017, nearly 30 years after it opened, the tiny Wallingford retail shop was ready to shut down. That’s when stepped in and bought the business. Two years later, the tech entrepreneur has turned an old-school brick-and-mortar concept into an innovative e-commerce service that has shipped 500,000 items of used kids clothing to customers across the country. And now the Seattle startup is raising cash from top-tier investors to help fuel its growth. announced a $3.3 million funding round from YesVC, an early-stage firm co-founded by Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake; Maveron, the Seattle firm that previously backed e-commerce giants such as Zulily and eBay; and other investors including SoGal Ventures, Sesame Street Ventures, Collaborative Fund, Liquid 2 VC, and Brand Foundry Ventures. The company offers a unique solution to a problem that parents with young children often face: buying affordable clothes for their growing kids. The service takes advantage of partnerships with nonprofits and thrift organizations to source a supply of “nearly new” kids clothing that is discounted by 70-to-90 percent off similar products online. Customers select the types and sizes of clothing they need — four pairs of pants, three long-sleeve shirts, two dresses, etc. — and Kids on 45th stylists put together a curated box that is shipped to doorsteps. Items sell for as low as $1.99 each and an average of $3.29. There is no browsing process and the entire shopping experience is designed to take less than two minutes. “All of our competitors and incumbents rely on either a browse or discovery process,” Worthy told GeekWire. “We are specifically anti-browse. If you’re a mom who has a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old and they outgrow their pants, you won’t delightfully browse through clothes. You just want to solve the pants problem.” (Kids on 45th Photo) Worthy previously co-founded Seattle-based , a free nonprofit coding school for women that has graduated 250 students since in 2015. She left the day-to-day work at Ada in 2017 and had the opportunity to purchase Kids on 45th from the original owner. “It seemed like such a treasure trove of data,” said Worthy, who serves as CEO. “I thought it would be so cool to buy the store and figure out how to bring it online to be a web-scaled business.” Worthy not only started analyzing years and years of Kids on 45th purchasing data, but also observed customer experiences inside the store. Moms, especially those who don’t enjoy recreationally shopping, just wanted something to replace the clothes that their kids had outgrown. “It dawned on me that we were investing time in a browse experience that our customers didn’t want,” said Worthy, who has two young sons herself. The company has 15 employees in Seattle and another 15 people at its warehouse in Texas where garments are sorted into 350 categories. It has developed an efficient supply chain and distribution model to help keep handling costs low — it’s how items can be priced at such steep discounts, or as the company notes, “cheaper than Goodwill and Walmart.” Worthy described Kids on 45th as a “StitchFix-like experience without the cost or required subscription,” referencing the popular online clothing box service that also sells kids clothing. “We try to bring the StitchFix experience to 90 percent of Americans where that’s just not possible,” Worthy noted. Jason Stoffer, partner at Maveron who was an early board member at e-commerce giant Zulily, said the “rise in value retail offline has been unable to be replicated online until now, due to the difficulties of making the business model work.” “Elise and the Kids on 45th team have been able to sell clothing at radically low price points by challenging some of the shopping behaviors that have been accepted as a given up until this point,” he said in a statement. “They pass more savings onto their customers by pairing a global sourcing supply chain with taking on the burden of selection from moms, thereby reducing handling costs like photos, mannequins and returns.” Worthy added that “we are really happy with the unit economics of this business.” Kids on 45th also has an eye on sustainability, given the nature of its business, and hopes to help lessen the that are thrown into landfills each year. The company recently launched a new buy-back program that lets customers send in used clothes and receive Kids on 45th credit. Worthy said the startup will prove out its model with kids clothing before exploring other potential verticals. There are no plans to open more brick-and-mortar locations but Worthy said she’s open to the idea.