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H.R. 4048 (116th): Automatic Listening Exploitation Act of 2019


Amid reports of smart home devices recording couples having sex, what recourse should consumers have under federal law for such privacy violations?

Context

Recent years have seen an explosion of “smart” or voice-activated home devices, most prominently the Amazon Echo and Google Nest. 21% of adults now own such a device. The rate of ownership is still surging, with 14 million people getting their first such device last year.

However, reports have detailed devices going rogue and occasionally recording audio of what users say or do without their permission or knowledge. For example, an Amazon Echo device accidentally recorded a couple’s private in-home conversations and sent the audio to random people in the owner’s contact list.

What the bill does

The Automatic Listening Exploitation Act would fine a company up to $40,000 for each recording made without a user’s permission. It would also allow a customer to demand the recording be deleted from the company’s archives.

Exceptions would be made for service improvements, such as to “improve the speech recognition and natural language understanding of the voice-user interface” or “help the voice-user interface to adapt to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.” Considering that almost anything could conceivably be claimed by a company like Amazon or Google as a service improvement, it’s unclear how effective this bill would be.

It was introduced in the House on July 25 as bill number H.R. 4048, by Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA6).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that this very recent innovation in technology necessitates a corresponding update in federal law to combat its potential misuse.

“Smart speakers and doorbells are great, but consumers should have a way to fight back when tech companies collect more data than Americans have agreed to give up,” Rep. Moulton said in a press release. “More broadly, Congress should give Americans a bigger say in the data that companies collect. It’s time for a next generation of digital privacy laws, and it can start by holding corporations to their own privacy commitments.”

Odds of passage

Although GovTrack Insider was unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition, the bill has not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Surely producers of some of the most prominent smart home devices, such as Amazon and Google, will exercise their lobbying might to kill this legislation. Google’s parent company Alphabet spent $21.7 million on lobbying last year, while Amazon spent $14.4 million.

Last updated Sep 6, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Jul 25, 2019.


Automatic Listening Exploitation Act of 2019 This bill limits the capturing and use of recordings through smart speakers and video doorbells. Specifically, it prohibits providers of services through smart speakers (e.g., Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomePod) from capturing or storing voice recordings unless the speaker is intentionally activated by the user. Further, the bill prohibits providers of services through video doorbell systems (e.g., Nest, Ring, SimpliSafe) from recording or storing video or audio from such systems unless the doorbell has been activated by (1) pressing the doorbell, (2) a remote user, or (3) the doorbell’s sensor. When such a device has been activated, the video recording must be provided to the remote user via smart phone or similar device at the time the recording is being made. Except for specified purposes, the use, or transfer to a third party, of such recordings from smart speakers or video doorbells is prohibited unless the user (1) is given clear notice, (2) provides express consent for the specific use or transfer, and (3) has the ability to delete such recordings at any time.

The Federal Trade Commission must enforce the requirements of this bill and treat violations as unfair or deceptive practices and state attorneys general may bring civil actions to (1) enjoin violations, (2) enforce compliance with the requirements of this bill, or (3) obtain fines not to exceed $40,000 for each violation.