Amazon’s controversial vision for the future of your home security

At an invite-only press conference on Tuesday, the company showed off a 20-pound dog-like autonomous robot named Astro with big cartoon eyes on its tablet and a cup holder. The robot – much like an Alexa on wheels – uses voice recognition software, cameras, artificial intelligence, mapping technology and voice and facial recognition sensors as it zooms from room to room, capturing live video and learning your habits.
Amazon also announced a subscription service called Virtual Security Guard for Ring cameras. Ring, the doorbell and smart camera company acquired in 2018 for $1 billion, will work with professional third-party surveillance companies, such as Rapid Response, to analyze a live feed from its outdoor cameras. Agents can use the camera’s two-way talk functionality to communicate with visitors and activate the camera’s siren or dispatch emergency services as needed. (Ring already sells a $250 drone called Always Home Cam with an attached camera that can automatically fly around your house and stream video to your smartphone.)

For Amazon, these products offer the promise of taking a slice of the lucrative home security market and pushing customers deeper into its ecosystem of household products. Other tech companies have entered this market over the years, including Google with its Nest Aware video recording system and Nest smart doorbell. Companies such as Logitech, Arlo, and Netamo offer similar products.

But Amazon’s decision to expand its offerings in this product category comes at a time of scrutiny of the power and data privacy practices of the biggest players in the tech industry. And Amazon’s latest security products, with their potential for increased surveillance in and around our homes, could test just how much more companies can improve consumer comfort levels with such intrusive technology.

“Tech companies promised a future like Star Trek, but Amazon is trying to sell us RoboCops,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and member of the University of New York law school. York. “And while these products promise security, they really are a threat. These sensors would give us a disturbing new reality where there is no escaping the tech giant’s roaming drones in our own homes.”

It’s a seemingly bold move for Amazon, as its reach and power have caught the eye of regulators around the world. Amazon has previously raised privacy concerns with its smart home devices. In 2019, for example, a Bloomberg report found that Amazon employed a global team that transcribed Alexa voice commands to captured Echo devices after the wake word was detected to help improve Alexa’s understanding of the human speech. (Amazon later said people could opt out of Amazon using their voice recordings.)

Privacy advocates also criticized a 2019 move by Ring to give law enforcement easier access to videos recorded on its doorbells for active investigations. (Since June, police and fire departments can only request information or video related to an ongoing investigation through public messages called requests for assistance.)

Shortly after Tuesday’s event, leaked internal documents released by Motherboard revealed concerns raised by Astro’s development team regarding the security and privacy of the robot Astro, a person who worked on the project l would have called a “privacy nightmare that is an indictment of our society”. An Amazon representative pushed back against the characterizations in the report in response to Motherboard and noted that Astro uses on-device processing for tasks such as recognizing individuals.

Following the publication of this article, Amazon told CNN Business that privacy is fundamental to the design of its products. “We only collect the information necessary to provide and improve our customers’ experience. When we collect data, we secure it and use it responsibly to improve the experience, while providing customers with transparency and control on their information,” a spokesperson said.

How Amazon is trying to break into customers’ homes

Amazon launched its presence in our homes in 2014 with the Echo speaker, which became a success for the company. Amazon has since integrated its virtual assistant Alexa into every type of device imaginable, effectively acclimating its users to the possibility of the company listening to them all the time in exchange for greater utility. Now its latest products basically offer steroids.

“Clearly we’re heading into different territory now with the arrival of more experimental products like the Always Home mini-drone camera and the Astro robot, but I think Amazon is using their products to learn more about the willingness of consumers to have such devices in their homes,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at market research firm CCS Insight. Wood also said some consumers are willing to compromise on privacy. for the sense of comfort and security that products from companies like Amazon provide.

Amazon seems to be taking steps to make this trade-off less severe.

A spokesperson for Ring told CNN Business that any agent monitoring a stream from its Virtual Security Guard service cannot access saved recordings or upload or store video, and customers will know which events were viewed by an agent. Customers can also set up privacy zones that are off-limits to agents, but that can be a little comfort for visitors and random passers-by who are always on camera.

On the Astro product page, Amazon notes that the robot’s microphones, cameras, and sensors will be disconnected when turned off. When Astro is recording, a light turns green and can be programmed to avoid certain areas of the house. Additionally, face images can be deleted and anything sent to the cloud will be encrypted. Astro creates a map of the house based on where the robot is exploring, but the company said the data, which is sent to the cloud, does not contain actual images or streaming video.

Then there is the appearance. Amazon has disguised the surveillance technology as an adorable companion watchdog, making it much more appealing to customers, according to Jonathan Collins, director of market research firm ABI Research. “Cuteness is subjective, but certainly the more emotionally invested someone is with a device — and this can be driven by pleasant visual or audio exchanges — the more likely it is to be used,” he said.

In a YouTube video released by the company this week, Amazon developers said they drew inspiration for Astro from sci-fi movies and cartoons. They also noted that it was important to include eyes on the robot and give it a personality, so it could better connect with users.
Other tech companies have tried to gain traction with home robots, including Softbank’s Pepper, Anki’s Vector robots and Samsung’s Ballie, the latter of which allows users to monitor pets, family members or checking things around the house when away. But Ballie was never commercialized and the others never made it big.

Astro, however, is building on the company’s strength in robots, artificial intelligence, computer vision, sensor technology, voice interactions and edge computing, Wood said. Coupled with Amazon’s reach and scale, this launch is much more remarkable, he added.

Amazon's Astro Robot

“With an introductory price of $1,000 and a small number of units available to a limited audience, I believe the Astro robot will sell out within minutes when it becomes available in the US market,” Wood said. (It will eventually cost $1,500 after an invite-only purchase period.)

If Astro is successful, this may just be the start. According to previous projections by ABI Research, approximately 79 million households worldwide will have a robot in their home by 2024. And one of the selling points of these robots will almost certainly be home security features.
In the YouTube video, Charlie Tritschler, vice president of product for Amazon, said Astro’s idea came after a senior management meeting when someone asked if anyone in the room thought the people wouldn’t have robots in their homes in the next five to ten years. years. “Everyone said, ‘Yeah, we are. So we were like, ‘Let’s get started,’ he said.

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