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Amazon is always watching

Oct 2, 2022, 7:55 AM
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You could soon receive even more emails after shopping on Amazon. (David Becker/AFP/Getty Images via CNN)
(David Becker/AFP/Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — A TV that knows when you’re in and out of the room. A gadget that monitors your breathing pattern while you sleep. An enhanced voice assistant tool that highlights just how much it knows about your everyday life.

At an invite-only press event last week, Amazon unveiled a long list of product updates ahead of the holiday shopping season that appear designed to further insert its gadgets and services into every corner of our homes with the apparent goal of making everything a little easier. But the event was also another reminder of just how much Amazon’s many products are watching us.

During prior events, Amazon raised eyebrows with blatant examples of surveillance products, including drones and Astro, the dog-like robot that patrols the home. But this year, Amazon’s advancements in everyday tracking were a bit more subtle.

The new Halo Rise sleep tracking device, for example, sits on the nightstand and monitors a person’s breathing and micro-movements as they sleep without the need to wear a sleep tracker. The device is said to work even if the person is turned in the other direction, or covered up by pillows and blankets.

On the new Echo Show 15 smart display, Amazon’s voice assistant Alexa can now rattle off a morning routine for each person in the home, provide calendar updates and highlight traffic reports for the commute to the office. There’s also an option to ask Alexa to turn off the lights up to 24 hours in the future if they won’t be home.

Amazon continues to expand Astro’s features, too. It can now detect the faces of pets in the home and stream footage to owners when they’re out of the house. The robot can also make sure windows and doors are closed and it can perform deeper monitoring when the owner is away as part of a virtual surveillance subscription.

Amazon is far from the only tech company offering products that monitor users or collect data with the promise of improved conveniences, productivity and safety. But Amazon, perhaps more than any of its peers, has created a sprawling suite of products and services that arguably track more of our daily lives in and around our homes.

In the months leading up to the product event, Amazon made two big announcements that could expand its reach into our lives even more. Amazon agreed last month to acquire iRobot, the company behind the popular automated Roomba vacuums, some of which create maps of the inside of our homes. It also announced plans to broaden its reach in the health care market by buying One Medical, a membership-based primary care service.

In the process, Amazon is possibly testing customers’ comfort levels with how much any single company should know about our lives, and perhaps shifting our tolerance, too.

Jonathan Collins, an analyst at ABI Research, said the scope and breadth of the company’s consumer offerings may be a concern for some, but many may simply accept the tradeoff for conveniences.

“By and large, negative consumer attitudes to data collection across smart home and other areas have largely been ameliorated by the services received in return,” he said. “Even if not explicit, there is a tradeoff between lower priced or free services and the data sharing and collection that supports their availability.”

Stephen Beck, founder and managing partner of consultancy cg42, said the views of customers “will likely remain unchanged after Amazon’s event because items like a TV, smart speaker, or sleep tracker feel familiar and do not pose obvious, new threats to privacy.”

Amazon has a history of being caught collecting user data without consumers knowing. In 2019, reports surfaced that Amazon was recording snippets of conversations from Alexa users that were sometimes reviewed by humans. In the wake of backlash, Amazon changed its settings so people could opt out of this.

For its latest products, the company states on its website how Astro is designed to detect only the chosen wake word, and no audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects that word. It also emphasizes the sensor data that Astro uses to navigate the home is processed on the device itself and not sent to the cloud, and the robot only streams video or images to the cloud when a feature like Live View in the Astro app is in use.

The Halo Rise sleep tracking device, meanwhile, encrypts the collected data and stores it in the cloud, according to the company. Users can later download or delete it.

But Amazon’s continued rollout of products that can monitor customers to varying degrees comes at a time many Americans have more reason to be mindful of data collection given the shifting legal landscape around abortion. Digital rights experts have warned that people’s search histories, location data, messages and other digital information could be used by law enforcement agencies investigating or prosecuting abortion-related cases.

“The danger of this tracking has never been so clear,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a fellow at the NYU School of Law. “Far too few customers think about how the information they give to companies can be misused by governments, hackers, and more.”

While some of the newly announced features, such as Astro’s increased monitoring of doors and windows, may be aimed at helping people feel more secure in their homes, Cahn worries these seemingly small updates also push people even deeper into Amazon’s ecosystem.

“Thankfully,” Cahn said, “even if you can teach an old robotic dog new tricks, you can’t change one fact: It’s still creepy.”

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Amazon is always watching