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| Milestone Consulting, LLC

special needsArtificial intelligence (AI) has been in American homes for years – now more than ever. In fact, Amazon’s intelligent speaker called Echo was the hot Christmas gift of 2016 and sold out in December (according to Amazon, it’ll be back in stock on January 25).

The voice-controlled Amazon Echo plays users’ music from services like Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio. It can also answer questions, read news and audiobooks, call an Uber, report the weather, and provide scores of other information. The Echo can connect to other smart home devices allow users to control them hands-free. Google has its own smart speaker called Google Home, which hit shelves last November. With the familiar phrase “OK Google,” the Home provides similar amenities as the Echo.

As these and other AI home devices gain popularity across the country, parents and watchdog groups are growing concerned over the devices’ role around children. The concerns are not unfounded – a six-year-old girl from Dallas, for examples, ordered four pounds of sugar cookies and a $160 doll house from Amazon after having a casual conversation with the family’s Echo.

Note: The Echo does have parental controls – the mom of the girl who ordered the cookies has since activated the four-digit pin for Amazon purchases. Google Home does not appear to have a pin or similar parental controls, but users can block explicit music and video content from playing on Google Home through YouTube, Google Play Music, and other services.

Virtual shopping carts aside, Amazon, Google and other companies could face bigtime fines for contravening the U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which regulates the collection and use of personal information from children under 13. One of the main issues is that the companies are marketing their voice-activated AI home devices to this age group.

COPPA applies to online services designed for or used by children under 13. According to an article in The Guardian,

“COPPA forbids a company from storing a child’s personal information, including recordings of their voice, without the explicit, verifiable consent of their parents. The law specifies the ways a company can get that consent, such as a signed letter, video chat or phone call. Although all three companies store audio files of voice requests in the cloud, none of them use a COPPA-approved method to seek consent beforehand.”

Similar to the risks for children, AI home devices could pose problems for adults with special needs. Although COPPA may not apply in these scenarios, it’s important for families to consider the implications that come with the ease of requesting information and purchasing items through the devices.

If you’ve got one of these devices in your home and are concerned about access to it by certain members of the family, check out the parental controls provided with the specific device. As more parents and organizations voice their concerns over privacy and control, we will hopefully see new updates emerge that solve these issues.

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