Amazon is facing a class-action lawsuit filed in the Madison County Circuit Court alleging that Amazon’s Alexa violates the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA). In setting out its case against Amazon, the Complaint quotes an interview with former Amazon senior editor James Marcus in which he said that “It was made clear from the beginning that data collection was also one of Amazon’s businesses. All customer behavior that flowed through the site was recorded and tracked. And that itself was a valuable commodity.”
The Complaint details the near ubiquity of Amazon’s voice-based virtual assistant Alexa by alleging that Alexa is embedded in numerous Amazon devices such as Echo speakers, Fire tablets, and others. The Complaint goes on to allege that Alexa can additionally be integrated into other devices such as phones, TVs, thermostats, appliances, lights, and many more consumer products.
The Complaint alleges that after Alexa responds to a request, Amazon collects and subsequently stores “voiceprints” of the user, and “transcriptions” of the voiceprints. These voiceprints and transcriptions constitute biometric identifiers or biometric information regulated by BIPA, according to the Complaint. The suit goes on to allege that Amazon does not delete the voiceprint or transcription after Alexa has responded. Instead, the Complaint alleges, Amazon uses these recordings to collect biometric information which it uses to improve the speech and voice recognition capabilities of Alexa.
Although Alexa is supposed to activate only after hearing its “wake word,” the Complaint alleges that Alexa-enabled devices frequently capture conversations by accident without being triggered. The Complaint cites a study conducted by Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the Bochum Max Planck Institute for Cyber Security and Privacy that allegedly discovered more than 1,000 sequences of words that incorrectly trigger smart speakers, such as Alexa. According to the Complaint, the study found that Alexa was inadvertently activated by the words “unacceptable” and “election.”
Echoing the concerns that privacy advocates have voiced for many years, the lawsuit purports to detail Amazon’s extensive use of the voiceprints captured by Alexa. Initially, the Complaint alleges, “Amazon represented that the voiceprints were simply streamed to the cloud and used only to allow Alexa to respond to the command and help personalize Alexa’s response to a user.” According to the Complaint, Amazon only later admitted “that it stores voiceprints, the transcriptions made from the voiceprints, and other information created from the voiceprints, including ‘acoustic models’ of the speaker’s voice characteristics, on multiple servers.” Amazon allegedly employs thousands of individuals worldwide who listen to recordings made by Alexa and review transcriptions in order to “eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.”
The suit accuses Amazon of violating the BIPA by failing to notify Illinois users that their voiceprints are collected, stored and used and that their interactions are recorded. The plaintiff in the suit, April Schaeffer, seeks to represent not only herself but a class of “all Illinois residents who own an Alexa device located in Illinois from which, during the class period, Amazon has taken possession of the person’s voiceprint and/or a voiceprint transaction, acoustic model of voice characteristics, or other information created from a voiceprint that is linked to the person; and who have suffered no injury from Amazon’s violations of BIPA and/or other statutory aggrievement.” The Complaint requests entry of a permanent injunction enjoining Amazon from collecting, obtaining, storing, using, selling, leasing, trading, profiting from, disclosing or disseminating users’ biometric identifiers and information until it is done in compliance with BIPA. It also seeks damages of $5,000 per willful violation of BIPA or $1,000 per negligent violation and an award of attorneys’ fees.
This is not the first time Alexa has gotten Amazon in hot water. This lawsuit comes on the heels of another class-action suit involving Alexa filed recently by four healthcare workers who allege that their Amazon Alexa devices recorded conversations involving health information without their consent and in violation of HIPAA.
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