Amazon unwraps privateness options because it tries to roll deeper into your own home

9 great reads from CNET this week: Amazon Astro, James Bond, robocalls and more

The brand new Astro sensible dwelling robotic retains some private info on the machine as an alternative of Amazon’s cloud. That might assist prospects really feel snug utilizing it, however advocates say it does not remove all dangers to privateness.


Screenshot/CNET

Amazon’s gadgets, reminiscent of its Ring safety cameras and its Alexa-powered sensible audio system, are well-known for monitoring customers and their environment. Now Amazon is attempting to determine methods to design merchandise that profit you with out grabbing unacceptable ranges of private knowledge. 

On Tuesday, Amazon unveiled updates to each Ring and Echo merchandise that make incremental advances on person privateness. The fundamental thought: Folks will really feel extra snug with the merchandise if their private info is processed on the safety cameras and sensible shows, moderately than despatched to Amazon’s cloud.

With Ring’s new Alarm Professional system, customers have the choice to retailer and course of video domestically, which suggests the information stays on their gadgets. Equally, the up to date Echo Present 15, a wise show powered by the Alexa voice assistant, provides customized options primarily based on facial recognition utilizing knowledge that is saved solely on the Echo machine. These customized options embrace individualized content material for relations.

How shut the corporate is to constructing reliable merchandise will depend on who you ask. Privateness-minded people are inclined to steer clear of camera- and microphone-laden sensible dwelling gadgets. The brand new options Amazon launched do not tackle bigger issues about always-on surveillance gadgets. For instance, protecting knowledge on the machine will not assuage criticisms of the newly introduced Astro, a wise dwelling robotic reportedly designed partially to observe folks round a home after they aren’t enrolled within the product’s Visible ID program. 


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Still, the market dominance of Amazon products points to plenty of satisfied customers. For potential buyers who aren’t comfortable, the concessions are part of the company’s efforts to reassure them, though the changes are unlikely to satisfy privacy hawks. 

Here’s more about Amazon’s privacy innovations.

Privacy features that still collect your data

Ring’s new local storage feature for the Ring Alarm Pro expands on limited uses of on-device processing, some of which run radar scans without using the cloud. The new feature lets users rely on on-device processing for multiple Ring cameras in their home networks. 

“It’s the first separate Ring device that connects across a broad array of devices that allows local processing and storage in the home,” said Mike Harris, chief operating officer of Ring.

The buildup to on-device processing complements security and privacy features Ring has added slowly, often in direct response to criticism. Ring began requiring two-factor authentication in 2020 to help keep hackers out of cameras, a feature that was implemented after a rash of hacking incidents targeting people who had reused passwords from less secure accounts. Ring is also one of a few companies in its field to offer optional end-to-end encryption for its cameras and doorbells, making user data on Amazon’s servers unreadable to the company.

As for the Echo, Amazon is also gradually introducing personalization features that keep user data on the device, meaning Amazon doesn’t collect user data or learn about specific users on its own servers. The personalization features offer individual home screens for family members, as well as personalized content. 

Ring cameras and Echo speakers or displays are still designed to learn a ton about users, and some of the new features will move user images to Amazon’s cloud to create personalized Ring notifications based on computer vision, for example. Additionally, the new privacy protecting practices aren’t globally available for all features or devices. 

Privacy requires processing power

On-device processing is preferable not just because of the potential to protect user privacy, but also because it’s faster than sending user data back and forth over the internet. Until recently, cloud computing has been preferable because there’s so much more processing power and storage available on Amazon’s servers than on its devices. 

Amazon has addressed that problem by equipping Echo devices with improved processors. Echo’s new Visual ID feature will work on Echo devices running an AZ2 processor, said Miriam Daniel, Amazon’s vice president of Echo and Alexa devices, and it builds on speech-recognition features Amazon introduced last year that run locally on Echo speakers running an AZ1 processor. 

Amazon announces Astro robot, Ring, Echo Show, Glow

The AZ2 processor gives more computing power, enabling the Echo Show 15 to run more features locally.


Screenshot/CNET

In the case of Ring Alarm Pro, local storage and processing is also supported by the somewhat retro addition of an external microSD card, but the concept is the same. Faster processors should mean faster features. 

The new processors aren’t as powerful as, say, those in an Android phone or iPhone. That means some features, such as customized Ring alerts that rely on computer vision software, have to be run on Amazon’s cloud. The reason, according to Ring’s chief technology officer, Joshua Roth, is that the feature still takes more processing power than Ring devices can provide.

Can a surveillance robot respect privacy? 

Keeping user data on the cloud is only one of many ways smart home devices can invade privacy, watchdogs say.

Take the new Astro robot, which Amazon says uses on-device processing for Visual ID, voice command and sensor data that maps users’ homes. According to a report from Motherboard, the robot’s optional sentry mode prompts Astro to investigate unidentified people in the home who aren’t registered with Visual ID, essentially requiring household members to use the facial recognition feature. Anyone whose face isn’t “enrolled” will be followed and potentially recorded by Astro.

Experts say Astro, cute as it is, brings a new level of surveillance to homes by creating a record of anyone new who enters — for example, when a teenager brings home a new friend. As a result, parents could potentially learn about their kids’ friends through an Alexa alert rather than a conversation.

On-device processing does show that Amazon is responding to worries raised by customers and privacy advocates, said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But that doesn’t eliminate all potential problems. 

“The more recording you do at home, the more likely you are to catch someone on there who does not consent to being recorded,” he said.

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