SkillBot: Identifying Risky Content for Children in Alexa Skills

Tu Le, Danny Yuxing Huang, Noah Apthorpe, Yuan Tian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many households include children who use voice personal assistants (VPA) such as Amazon Alexa. Children benefit from the rich functionalities of VPAs and third-party apps but are also exposed to new risks in the VPA ecosystem. In this article, we first investigate "risky"child-directed voice apps that contain inappropriate content or ask for personal information through voice interactions. We build SkillBot - a natural language processing-based system to automatically interact with VPA apps and analyze the resulting conversations. We find 28 risky child-directed apps and maintain a growing dataset of 31,966 non-overlapping app behaviors collected from 3,434 Alexa apps. Our findings suggest that although child-directed VPA apps are subject to stricter policy requirements and more intensive vetting, children remain vulnerable to inappropriate content and privacy violations. We then conduct a user study showing that parents are concerned about the identified risky apps. Many parents do not believe that these apps are available and designed for families/kids, although these apps are actually published in Amazon's "Kids"product category. We also find that parents often neglect basic precautions, such as enabling parental controls on Alexa devices. Finally, we identify a novel risk in the VPA ecosystem: confounding utterances or voice commands shared by multiple apps that may cause a user to interact with a different app than intended. We identify 4,487 confounding utterances, including 581 shared by child-directed and non-child-directed apps. We find that 27% of these confounding utterances prioritize invoking a non-child-directed app over a child-directed app. This indicates that children are at real risk of accidentally invoking non-child-directed apps due to confounding utterances.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3539609
JournalACM Transactions on Internet Technology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 25 2022


  • Child safety
  • automated system
  • parents' perceptions
  • risky voice app

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Networks and Communications


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