A child in a bed with an Echo Dot Kids speaker on the bedside table.
Photo: Amazon

On May 9, Amazon will release a kid-friendly version of its widely sold Echo Dot smart speaker, along with a parental-control version of its voice assistant that can be used on many Alexa-compatible devices. Parents may find the new device convenient and reassuring, but child and privacy advocates say they should be aware that it collects data on the children who use it.

The Echo Dot Kids Edition is a regular black Dot swaddled in one of three bright covers—blue, green, or red. At $80, the new device is significantly pricier than the $50 non-Kids version, but it comes bundled with a year’s subscription to Free Time Unlimited, which includes access to Audible children’s books, kids’ songs on Amazon Music, and games and apps (known as “skills”) from outlets such as Disney, National Geographic, and Nickelodeon.

Kids and Privacy

A new Free Time parental dashboard allows parents to set time limits, filter explicit lyrics from Amazon Music, review a child’s activity on the smart speaker, and prevent kids from using the device to make purchases.

The dashboard can be added to existing Echo speakers (except for the Show and Spot, which have screens) on May 9 through a free Alexa software update. Subscriptions to Free Time Unlimited start at $3 per month for Amazon Prime members with a single child and top out at $10 per month for a nonmember family plan. 

The Kids edition of the Dot speaker also comes with an open-ended two-year guarantee that covers all replacement scenarios.

What Parents Should Know

The Echo Dot Kids speaker performs a variety of child-friendly functions. For example, it offers positive feedback when a child adds the word “please” to a request and steers a kid to a parent if he or she asks a question such as “Where do babies come from?” 

The device also transmits information back to Amazon and its partners.

According to Amazon’s Children’s Privacy Disclosure, the company may capture data such as “name, birthdate, contact information (including phone numbers and e-mail addresses), voice, photos, videos, location, certain activity and device information.”

Amazon points out in its disclosure that its guidelines do not apply to third-party services that make the skills, apps, and websites linked to Amazon’s products. Before using any third-party service, the company advises, parents should review all applicable terms and policies, including those related to data collection and use.

Privacy experts have two overlapping concerns. First, children are particularly attractive targets for identity theft—and one way to keep your data safe from hackers is to keep it from being stored on corporate servers. Children’s data has been compromised in the past, notably in a hack of connected-toy maker VTech in 2015.

Second, some parents may simply prefer to keep corporate data collection at an arm’s length from their nurseries and playrooms. “Amazon wants kids to be dependent on its data-gathering device from the moment they wake up until they go to bed at night,” says Josh Golin, executive director at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Amazon notes that the company doesn’t use the voice recordings of children captured by the device to target advertising or product recommendations and that parents can delete the audio from Amazon’s servers. “It’s only to improve and make the Alexa service better,” says Amazon spokeswoman Rachel Hass.

“Parents must consider whether their children are helped or harmed by this form of constant connectivity and weigh the benefits offered by this new technology against the potential privacy concerns these devices continue to present,” says Stacey Steinberg, a child privacy expert and professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

An Amazon Echo Dot Kids with a blue covering.
Photo: Amazon

Another Aristotle?

This is not the first stab at this sort of product. Last year, Mattel canceled plans for an artificial-intelligence-powered baby monitor and smart speaker called Aristotle. While the baby monitor was designed to soothe a crying infant, Aristotle performed many of the same functions as the new Amazon device, including reading bedtime stories and answering children’s open-ended questions about the world. 

Parents and child-development experts expressed concern about the connected device. Jenny Radesky, a University of Michigan pediatrician and child-development expert, told The Washington Post that her main concern about this technology, apart from privacy concerns, “is the idea that a piece of technology becomes the most responsive household member to a crying child, a child who wants to learn, or a child’s play ideas.”

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, sent Mattel a letter asking how the device would collect data from children and how it would protect and store that information. 

Mattel pulled the plug on Aristotle last October, 10 months after its announcement but before the planned launch. The company had already made other forays into the connected-toy world, with mixed results. Early on, the company’s Hello Barbie smart doll was found to have serious security flaws that could have granted hackers access not only to the toy but also to the home WiFi network to which it was connected.