Amazon appears undeterred by its emerging reputation in consumer technology: creep.
At a virtual launch event on Thursday, Amazon’s new product lineup again pushed the boundaries of where and how we bring surveillance into our lives. Its new gadgets include: a Ring security camera attached to an indoor flying drone, a new Echo Show speaker that swivels to follow you around, and a security camera for cars that can record encounters with police.
Amazon also announced a few overdue improvements to the privacy protections its connected products offer consumers, which I applaud. But the direction the company wants to take connected life is unmistakable: more recordings feeding into Amazon artificial intelligence to automate our homes and our lives.
Earlier this month, Amazon also unveiled a new wearable health device and service called Halo that can take three-dimensional scans of your body and listen to your conversations to let you know how you might sound to others.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.
The company introduced more than a dozen new products Thursday, including a new streaming game service called Luna and a new shape for its very popular Echo talking speakers. Goodbye talking coffee cans and pucks — hello glowing orbs. These speakers, now priced $50 to $100, have in recent years been among the world’s best-selling home audio devices, and the centerpiece of Amazon’s strategy to bring microphones and its Alexa AI into people’s homes.
The new Amazon devices most likely to raise eyebrows use cameras, not just microphones. That starts with the $250 Always Home Cam, part of its Ring brand of connected doorbells and security systems. This camera is an autonomous drone that flies inside your house so you can check in from afar. “We wanted to create one camera that could give users the flexibility of every viewpoint they want around the home,” Ring founder Jamie Siminoff said in a blog post.
Before you ask: No the drone doesn’t contain lasers for entertaining the cats — they’re likely to be terrified, anyway. Amazon says the Always Home Cam does have obstacle-avoidance technology so it doesn’t run into anything unexpected.
Siminoff said the idea was you could use your phone to remotely see if you left a window open, or the stove on, which is convenient. But the scary part is we know those aren’t the only ways it could be used. Amazon said the drone always hums at a “certain volume” so people are aware it is running, and can’t be manually controlled — it only flies along a preset path.
But as we’ve learned from Ring’s other products, what’s to stop it from spying on family members or neighbors, becoming a tool for police — or being used to watch you? Once again, Ring’s products raise more social questions than the company seems to want to address. Ring said Siminoff was not available for an interview.
Also from the Ring brand, a new $200 dashboard car security camera promises to alert users to attempted break-ins, as well as alert authorities if there’s an accident. One particular capability caught my attention, given Ring’s cozy relationship with police. Say, “Alexa, I’m getting pulled over,” and the Ring Car Cam will record your interaction, save it to the cloud, and alert your family.
Connected cameras in cars also open up a whole new world of questions for car crashes, as I learned earlier this year when the many cameras on my car, a Tesla Model 3, recorded a hit-and-run while it was parked. Amazon’s Car Cam will bring similar capabilities to a lot more cars. What are the implications for insurance — and courts? Can your car be its own witness? Can it testify against you?
One more new Amazon device that captured my attention is the Echo Show 10, an update to its smart speaker with a 10-inch HD screen and camera attached. This update puts the screen part on a swivel motor, which allows the screen to swing around and face you while you’re interacting with it. Given that many of these devices live in kitchens and family rooms, that’s helpful to make sure you can see the recipe, TV show or video call that’s on the screen while you walk around.
But you might be wondering: How does the Echo Show know how to follow you around? That, of course, requires the camera to be on all the time. Amazon says the Echo Show looks for the general shape of a person, and tracks to that, without sending any video of you to Amazon. But it can also be remotely activated as a security camera, to swivel around and see the whole room.
It wasn’t only uncomfortable news on the privacy front. Amazon announced its Ring security cameras would soon allow users to turn on what’s known as end-to-end encryption. That’s an important step for keeping unwanted eyes out of your video feed, be it hackers or governments. End-to-end encryption is also used on services like Apple’s FaceTime and Facebook’s WhatsApp. It wasn’t immediately clear what impact that might have on some of the functionality of these devices.
And Amazon finally said it would permit people to use Alexa devices without Amazon keeping a recording of their conversations. As I discovered last year, Echo speakers sometimes activate at random times and eavesdrop on parts of your life. What makes that even creepier is that Amazon used to keep a recording of all of it on its computers, unless you kept going in after the fact to delete it. Now at long last, there will be a setting you can turn on that will cause Amazon to forget everything it hears right after you say it.
I just wish Amazon would take it step further: Make that the new privacy default for everyone.