Commentary: We've let the most powerful corporations draw their own lines on privacy in our homes. They've given us a face-scanning patrol bot from hell.
I just wanted to turn the lights off with my voice.
It was 2014. After spending my first two years at CNET getting my feet wet writing about color-changing smart bulbs and other newfangled wonders of the connected home, I watched the reveal video for the Amazon Echo, the flagship smart speaker that moved the smart home into the mainstream. My eyebrows shot up as I imagined what this device could mean for connected gadgets, most of which were still clumsily dependent on underdeveloped control apps. After years spent pulling my phone out to hit the lights, dimming a lamp with a quick voice command sounded like a dream -- and sure enough, the Echo was a smash hit.
Turns out Amazon is pretty good at selling things -- and now, several years later, the company wants to sell us on Astro, a plucky little robot that wheels around your home using facial recognition to identify people as they come and go. You can track the video clips it records on your phone, and if it spots something amiss, it'll send you a notification. Oh, and it's a hit at parties, thanks to the onboard cup holders and a preprogrammed penchant for beat-boxing.
I just wanted to turn the lights off with my voice. And so did you, perhaps. But here we are, continuing to chase convenience and novelty down a slippery slope, plummeting downward like a wayward robot tumbling down the stairs. Have you noticed how many stories CNET and other outlets have published over the past few years about the very valid concerns surrounding facial recognition, and about the vulnerabilities stemming from the skyrocketing presence of surveillance cameras within our homes? Well, now, Amazon wants you to let one of those cameras patrol around your house.
To be clear, Amazon's white paper on Astro explains that the robot navigates around obstacles not with its cameras, but with sonar-like infrared light pings, all of which are processed locally on the device and then discarded without ever reaching Amazon's cloud. That's good -- but Astro will also make a map of your home in the process, and that map does get uploaded to Amazon.
"Astro sends information derived from its sensors to the cloud when it first explores a space or moves to a new room," the white paper reads. "This derived information includes data like the locations of walls, furniture and objects. Amazon processes and combines this information with related data (like customer-provided room names, transitions between rooms, and readings of Wi-Fi signal strength) to create and store a map of the home in the cloud."
On top of that, customers with a Ring Protect Pro subscription can set Astro to wander from room to room, extending its periscope camera in each one and uploading the video to Ring.
"The patrol feature enables Astro to periodically move through a customer's home when it is set to Home or Away," the white paper reads. "Customers can customize the frequency of patrol loops and choose to stream and save in Ring's cloud storage an encrypted 10-second, 360-degree video of each room Astro visits while on patrol."
What's more, according to a report from Motherboard, when Astro is on patrol, it'll follow anyone that crosses its path, attempting to scan their face and analyze it until it can tell if it's a trusted family member or an unknown stranger. Will it follow people, unnoticed, into the bedroom? The bathroom?
"You can close doors in areas of your home where you do not want Astro to travel," an Amazon spokesperson suggested when I asked. "You can also mark areas that Astro has explored as out of bounds zones in the Astro app to let it know where it's not allowed to go."
That's a start, but most people don't make a habit of always confining sensitive or potentially embarrassing behavior to specific rooms of the house. Will Astro keep the camera rolling in moments like those? Is Astro smart enough to respect our boundaries, to detect if someone is nude or otherwise in need of privacy, and turn away?
No, it isn't -- and neither is Amazon.
And that's the thing: It isn't for Amazon or any other big tech company to decide how much privacy we deserve in our homes. Our homes are meant to be safe, intimate spaces where we can be ourselves with our families without fear of discovery or judgment. And sure, if you're willing to shed some of that privacy in exchange for a robo-friend that can bat its eyes at you as it scans your face, so be it. But why are we allowing Amazon to draw the lines here? Why does Amazon get to decide what's fair game and what's off-limits in our own homes?
In truth, it doesn't. It's us making that decision every time we choose whether or not to buy in with the latest gizmo or gadget. And, to be clear, I have absolutely no room to be sanctimonious here. I was won over by the Echo and unrattled by the privacy concerns of the onboard microphones, which seemed no more threatening to me than the always-listening microphone in the smartphone that's just about always within earshot. I still use Alexa gadgets in my own home almost every day.
But a face-scanning wannabe guard dog with Amazon holding its leash is too much for me to wrap my brain around. This is the company that uses whatever data it can glean about us to sell us as many things as it can. It's the company that's defended its acquisition of Ring through a string of privacy fumbles and troubling partnerships with law enforcement agencies, and the company that recently added a former NSA head to its board of directors while securing a $10 billion deal with the agency. It's the company that experts warn is hurtling closer and closer to a catastrophic breach resulting from unsecure data practices, particularly with regards to former employees. Speaking of which, some employees from the Astro team are already leaking internal documents about the robot's development and claiming that the thing is pretty terrible at its stated job.
Robots like these are inevitable, Amazon's engineers proclaimed in what felt like a preemptive defense during the robot's launch. If they didn't make Astro, someone else would have (though, arguably, others already had). Maybe they're right, but it's a stretch for Amazon to sit up and say that it's the best company for the job.
I just wanted to turn the lights off with my voice. Who wanted this?