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Alexa, how do you sue Amazon?

Two Massachusetts residents say Amazon's Alexa devices are "recording every conversation she has with users" but without the consent required under the state law on recording conversations, so they've sued.

The suits, filed last week in Suffolk Superior Court - because Amazon has an office here that works on Alexa - are a bit unusual because they are not class-action cases, the two plaintiffs have sued for less than $75,000 in damages and they are only alleging a violation of Massachusetts law, not broader federal constitutional issues in a possible attempt to keep them out of federal court.

Law360, which broke the story, reports that among their lawyers are firms from Chicago and Los Angeles that are involved in similar Alexa litigation in Los Angeles and Seattle.

The complaint by Wilfried Braunack of Milford, who filed one of the suits, and who has been chatting - and allegedly being recorded - by his Alexa since March 21, 2019, begins by stating what he and his lawyers claim Alexa is doing behind the scenes:

While encouraging people to speak with Alexa, Amazon is recording every conversation she has with users. What's more, Amazon also records conversations when no one is speaking with Alexa. Amazon makes these so-called "false wake" recordings when a user says a word that sounds like "Alexa" or another wake word - for example, Alexa will activate when a person says the word "election." Amazon designed Alexa devices to record and store the private conversations it captures via "false wakes" just as they do conversations with Alexa, even though in "false wakes" users do not intend to activate Alexa. After all, Alexa is one of the ways Amazon collects raw data on consumers.

Given their value to Amazon, the recordings might never be deleted unless the owner explicitly asks for them to be deleted - and sometimes not even then. So, for each Alexa device in a household, Amazon may have thousands, if not tens of thousands, of permanent recordings in its database of not only the device owner's voice but also the voices of their family members and anyone else who has ever spoken in a device's presence. Amazon has thus built a massive database of billions of voice recordings containing the private details of millions of Americans.

Amazon in turn discloses the Alexa recordings to some unknown number of Amazon employees and contractors around the world, who use Alexa recordings to improve and develop new technologies for Amazon. Indeed, Amazon now has the technology to listen to peoples' conversations and make targeted advertisements based on what is said, or to hear when a person is sick so it can suggest purchasing cough drops.

The complaint then continues how allegedly wrong this is in Massachusetts, because of the state law on conversation recording, part of a wiretap law enacted in 1968:

Massachusetts law makes it illegal to record a person who has not "given prior authority" to be recorded. Amazon purports to obtain consent to record individuals who set up an Alexa-enabled device through its terms and conditions. But Plaintiff Wilfried Braunack did not provide his consent to be recorded.

Amazon does not obtain actual consent to record users' voices. Amazon does not tell Alexa users it will keep an audio recording of everything they ask, either when an Alexa Device is first set up or at any time thereafter. Amazon does not tell users that their voice will be stored, analyzed, and exploited for Amazon's benefit. Amazon could disclose these things and ask users to explicitly agree to them, but it does not. ...

Amazon instead has buried in the Alexa terms and conditions an oblique reference to the fact that it is permanently recording what its users say. Users supposedly "agree" to these terms and conditions, but Amazon never actually obtains an affirmative confirmation that they agree, or even requires users to actually read them. Amazon does not present the agreement as a popup; does not require users to click a link to access it; and certainly does not require users to scroll through the document, acknowledge, and accept the language that Amazon contends provides actual notice. Even if Amazon had actually presented the terms upon which it now seeks to rely, that would not be sufficient because the description of how Alexa operates is deliberately vague and obfuscates the reality that Amazon is recording everything they say, storing these recordings, and monetizing the information.

My complaint involves only a claim for violation of state law, not federal law.

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Comments

I worked with said Alexa group until recently, and most of this is inaccurate. The "false wake word" recordings are sent to Amazon, but are discarded once they're determined to be false. Amazon does save intentional interactions, but honestly that's not news. Amazon definitely doesn't save *everything* (even they don't have that much storage space). They also have reasonable (though not perfect) policies and procedures in place to handle situations where Alexa records something it shouldn't have.

Some parts of the complaint are accurate: some percentage of voice recordings - including some unintentional interactions - are reviewed by contractors, who probably but not definitely will handle them appropriately. Amazon definitely analyzes interactions with users for their gain (but who didn't think they did this). Amazon also has some borderline-creepy analysis they can do, but this only happens for intentional interactions (or if you do something like turn the home-security setting on).

The biggest thing to keep in mind is that Amazon has to choose a position between "record nothing, and the product is near-useless" and "record and analyze everything and customers stop buying it and/or the government gets involved". Amazon can't go full-on evil, because if they do people will eventually find out and all of a sudden no more Alexa sales.

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Amazon can't go full-on evil, because if they do people will eventually find out and all of a sudden no more Alexa sales.

google and facebook don’t seem to give a shit about how they’re perceived. i don’t see why amazon would either.

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I was about to respond to the exact same claim.

This relies upon: (1) sufficient people looking into this type of stuff; (2) people being smart enough to understand the dangers of pervasive surveillance; and (3) the gov't working to protect consumers in the absence of widespread outrage (see points 1 & 2).
I don't see it.

We are at, or infinitesimally close to, pure evil.

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I temped with them too in 2016. What a garbage company.

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Started the interview process with them. Pay was great so were benefits.

At the same time I interviewed somewhere else and the lady who interviewed me who was an ex Microsoft Exec mumbled something about Amazon. So I asked.

"Average shelf life of an Amazon employee is 2 years. They will suck you up, and spit you back out when they are done. You'll leave the industry when you're done you'll be so burnt out"

After that I rescinded my interest in Amazon. Since then I have heard so many similar things like that. Glad I missed that hot mess.

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Problem solved.

I love people who think they are so self important that worlds richest man (and fast turning into Michael Lonsdale's character from Moonraker) would give a crap about them and need to know what they are talking about.

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If the world's richest man, and his company's employees, don't care about what Alexa users are saying, they could stop recording it.

I am not a lawyer, but this is an all-party consent state, which means that even if the court decides those terms and conditions are sufficient to count as consent by the device owner, Amazon may have stored thousands of hours of conversations by people who weren't even asked for that minimal consent. I'm thinking specifically of people who don't actually live there--plumbers, delivery people, children's friends...

I would be astonished if a court ruled that John Doe's having clicked "accept" on a complicated set of terms and conditions gave permission for Amazon to record what John Doe's teenage child's friends say.

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If we assume for a moment that Amazon has covered their liability to the purchaser/installer of the wiretap, who is liable for the wiretap recording those who did not give consent?

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https://canvas.uw.edu/courses/1257240/files/52519663/download?verifier=W...

Here's a review of the case law from 2017 in American Criminal Law Review Online that goes over just such a query. There are third-party exceptions to wiretap laws and there are different ways of interpreting two-party consent (like we have in MA).

The problem is that current law doesn't describe exactly this scenario (technology beating law to the punch yet again), so it'll be up to courts to interpret the laws given the arguments from the parties involved and then hopefully not fragmenting these interpretations to hell.

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if I'm wrong, but I believe that the Mass statute addresses "secret" recordings. Some may say that this is implicitly "two-party consent." But I think that's the biggest issue with this theory.

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I have a couple of Alexas (Alexi?). If you are worried about who's listening, then don't bring this into your house. I'm sure there is some dense document that comes along with this device that describes what you are getting into. Another silly lawsuit.

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Its that these devices *CAN* allow for this.

a few years ago NH forced Amazon to hand over what it had for a court case.

That was the moment I didn't want any Alexa (or Google) device in my home. I don't even want to give people the remote OPPORTUNITY to do so. While today we think 'oh no they aren't doing that"... I point to Facebook and others who we thought the same and were actually doing the exact opposite.

Don't put a door in where you don't need one.

Nothing to hide, but I prefer people not listen to me while I fart at home in silence.

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I'll just leave this YouTube clip here:

https://youtu.be/pC9m45AIsGY

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My sense is that, on the whole, Amazon’s primary business model (along with Apple’s and Microsoft’s) is to charge you money for the services you use and the goods you buy, and that information collected is primarily used internally. This is in contrast to some of the other tech giants, whose primary business model is to offer you services at no charge, to gather information about you and to monetize that information by selling it or by selling your eyeballs to advertisers.

(Or, as others have said more concisely, “with Amazon you are the customer, with Google and Facebook you are the product.”)

While I’m not under the delusion that Amazon or any other company from whom I buy goods and services is ultimately looking out for my interests, I do think the difference in fundamental business models is likely to play out in significant ways with regard to how my data is used; I’m less worried about Alexa in my living room than I am about Facebook on my phone...

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but remember that selling access to your data is not the only nefarious thing that Amazon in particular — owner of Amazon Web Services, Whole Foods, The Washington Post, and of course the Amazon store — might be interested in.

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Why? Same Chinese crap, twice the price.

When I read about income inequality, I hear a lot about billionaires, and not a lot about people who buy BMWs and Apple products when Hyundai and Samsung exist.

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the highest end samsung phone is actually more expensive than the top tier iphone with similar storage

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You’re making my point.

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i thought you were implying that buying apple is irrational when there are lower cost options that perform similarly.

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I don’t know what the (expletive) a high-end cell phone does, but I know damn well that I don’t need to spend $1,000 on a thing that I use to win bar arguments and set up casual sex encounters when I can spend $300.

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you can have yourself a brand new iphone SE.

regardless, the whole point here is that you pay higher prices in exchange (theoretically) for greater assurance that your data is secure.

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The camera on a high end phone, or, more particularly, the processing power and software behind it, are truly astounding. Pea-sized sensor with dinky little lens, and yet, amazingly sharp, high dynamic range, perfectly exposed images.

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I let others do it for me, because they’re better at it.

That’s why I’m not on Insta: My activities are defined by anecdotes, not photographs.

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...and set up casual sex encounters when I can spend $300.

We don't need to know that, Will.

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That's true to an extent. Amazon is making money by selling goods and services. But just because we are consumers in this case doesn't mean that we aren't also their products. Just look at what Amazon has done with Ring for example:
https://theintercept.com/2019/02/14/amazon-ring-po...

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This is another good example.

Ohhh Ring Cameras are so neat...

Yeah the local police can access your camera if you don't turn it off.

I'm a technical person who works in InfoSec feild so I was all about turning it off for friends. But most didn't have a clue or even KNEW it did this.

Not everyone is as savvy as us.. and thats the problem. Its the non-saavy people who are going to be victimized by this.

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I would think by buying an Alexa, you give consent to be recorded. Which is why you shouldn’t by an Alexa. It’s just lazy. But to the point, this seems like another get paid quick scheme by the user.

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Remember, this same problem applies to the smartphone voice assistants as well.

(Also any houseguests, although that's not so much a "now" problem.)

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who must absolutely HATE the very existence of this product. Nobody can ever call them by their name for fear that some device somewhere will suddenly wake up and listen.

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Billy Joel: “Well, I’m on the Downeaster ‘Alexa’, and I’m cruising through Block Island Sound...”

Device: “I found this list of restaurants...”

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Nods sympathetically

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My niece is named Alexis. We've called her Lexi for a few years now because of this reason.

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