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Amazon unwraps privacy features as it tries to roll deeper into your home

The tech giant is slowly adding features to make personalization more useful and less creepy. They won't make everyone happy.

astro

The new Astro smart home robot keeps some personal information on the device instead of Amazon's cloud. That could help customers feel comfortable using it, but advocates say it doesn't eliminate all risks to privacy.

Screenshot/CNET

Amazon's devices, such as its Ring security cameras and its Alexa-powered smart speakers, are well known for tracking users and their surroundings. Now Amazon is trying to figure out how to design products that benefit you without grabbing unacceptable levels of personal data. 

On Tuesday, Amazon unveiled updates to both Ring and Echo products that make incremental advances on user privacy. The basic idea: People will feel more comfortable with the products if their personal information is processed on the security cameras and smart displays, rather than sent to Amazon's cloud.

With Ring's new Alarm Pro system, users have the option to store and process video locally, which means the data stays on their devices. Similarly, the updated Echo Show 15, a smart display powered by the Alexa voice assistant, offers personalized features based on facial recognition using data that's stored exclusively on the Echo device. Those personalized features include individualized content for family members.

How close the company is to building trustworthy products depends on who you ask. Privacy-minded folks tend to stay away from camera- and microphone-laden smart home devices. The new features Amazon introduced don't address larger concerns about always-on surveillance devices. For example, keeping data on the device won't assuage criticisms of the newly announced Astro, a smart home robot reportedly designed in part to follow people around a house when they aren't enrolled in the product's Visual 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.