Alexa, Ring, and Astro: Where's my privacy, Amazon?

It's not just the cameras; it's Amazon's desire to process data created by its customers using its products to further monetize it.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

This year's Amazon hardware event was quite a doozy. The Seattle-based company showcased an updated health band with a nutritionally-guided personalized shopping service, a flying security drone, more indoor and outdoor cameras, and an autonomous sentry robot

All of which are powered in some way by AWS machine learning and left me thinking about one word: privacy.

Do I really want all of these products in my own home and as part of my life? Admittedly, there is a certain appeal to Amazon's pitch of having their technology live in the background, transparently, to enable our real-world experiences better. The best user interface is the effectively invisible one, like the ever-watchful and ready-to-talk computers on shows like Star Trek. They're benevolent AIs that always look out for us, keeping us out of harm's way while accepting our queries and commands.

Granted, I've already accepted a lot of these devices into my life. I have five Alexa-compatible smart speakers positioned in different parts of the house, so I have full coverage to deal with home automation issues. I also have a Google Home in the kitchen, plus multiple Siri-enabled mobile devices (Watch, iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple TV). And of course, I have webcams for doing Zoom calls and the like on my Mac workstation and on my iPad and iPhone — all of which aren't on unless I want them to be, presumably.

But so far, I have resisted the notion of having cameras all over the place, peering inside the home's interior spaces. Sure, I have some Ring devices guarding the front of the house, but there's nothing recording inside.

Part of this stems from the fact that I have no children, so I do not need to check up on them. I also rarely travel for extended periods away from my home. Besides my wife, my two miniature poodles are the only other residents of Chateau Perleaux. I live in a gated community with only one way in and out, and I'm alerted immediately if someone should be let through if they aren't on my regular list. 

Would I want cameras inside if I had young children? I honestly don't know. I can tell you that I see very little value from doing it now, and quite frankly, my lifestyle tends to border on the, shall we say, bohemian. I live in a warm-weather state, and if I don't have guests over, full clothing is optional, especially when using my pool and spa during hot afternoons and humid evenings, which is a big part of living in Florida. So I have no desire for Ring, Blink, or Astro to be capturing my spouse or me in various states of undress. I don't need something that chases me around my house like an attention-deprived puppy, constantly scanning everything around it. I have no idea where that video is going and if a human will ever review it for improving machine-learning purposes.

This is not to say I might not come around to the idea of having a robot, eventually. But besides being an Echo Show on wheels, Astro doesn't do anything except act as a constant sentry. Unlike the Tesla Bot, which doesn't even exist in demos yet, it doesn't have arms to manipulate things and perform general-purpose tasks.

It's not just the cameras, though. It's this constant desire by Amazon to suck up and process data created by its customers using its products so it can further monetize it. And that's the big difference I see between Amazon and its industry peers like Apple. This is especially true when we see things like the new Nutrition service attached to their Halo band, automatically formulating a meal plan and ordering groceries from Whole Foods based on your health data. I'm not sure I like the idea of Amazon telling me what I should eat, either.

With Apple products, such as the Watch, that collect a lot of personalized data from its sensors, all of the metrics can be reviewed by the end-user and easily erased. They have tools within iOS to adjust permissions of Health data and which applications have access to it. Amazon doesn't have this level of user control for everything that goes into its cloud, or at least it isn't easy to get to or isn't centralized under a single console. 

I can get to my voice command history, detect sounds on Alexa (for its opt-in Guard service), and set expirations for three months, 18 months, or until I delete it. Still, I have no idea what other noises are detected or recorded — and if humans ever review them. I also can't hear the captured sounds and voices in the UX; I can only view a log that it was recorded and be given the option to delete it. With Ring, I can view the video recordings stored in the cloud. Do users have full control over what Astro or their flying Ring drone uploads to AWS? Besides law enforcement, what humans can view these video recordings, besides customer-chosen third-parties, for its newly announced security service? I have no idea.

Amazon needs to do a better job detailing and disclosing what data is recorded, where it goes, who can review it, and providing better tools to manage this recorded information. Otherwise, I'm not sure any of us will ever feel fully comfortable having these devices in our homes.

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