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Amazon is dangerously popular. The Astro robot proves it

Commentary: It's more valuable for the tech giant to be popular than good.

David Priest Former editor
David Priest is an award-winning writer and editor who formerly covered home security for CNET.
David Priest
5 min read

Ring is learning from its parent company, Amazon. It's launched more than a dozen wildly popular security devices during the past few years, dominates the video doorbell market and has designs on capturing the DIY home security market, too. Yet at Amazon's 2021 hardware event, Ring's most exciting feature and product rollouts seemed to be characterized by, well, hesitance.

Or at least that's how it might appear: Ring's new flying drone camera and a virtual security guard feature are both entering invite-only launch periods, unlike any major Ring release before them. But that sort of rollout is commonplace for Amazon, explicitly for the purpose of gauging market interest. When some devices, like the original Echo smart speaker, catch on, their production rapidly expands. If they fail to generate excitement, like the Echo Tap or Look, Amazon is quick to trim them from the product line and toss them in the bin.

Here's an alternative interpretation to hesitancy: Ring, thanks to Amazon's tools and resources, has several direct lines to consumers -- not only to sell its products but also to determine which products are worth selling. As I've argued before, and as many American lawmakers have increasingly become aware, these resources give Amazon and its brands unprecedented economic power. But it also means the company can largely bypass traditional checks to such power -- for instance, critics in the media.

That doesn't mean we should stop criticizing the company, especially when it releases a privacy liability on wheels as it did with Astro. In fact, it's all the more important as Amazon tries to free itself of media dependence of any kind.

Read more: Ring's police problem never went away. Here's what you still need to know

The power of Amazon

"What may be more remarkable than [Amazon's] products," my colleague Laura Hautala wrote recently, "is the resilience of the company's device sales given its struggling reputation among corporate and tech watchdogs."

She's right: Amazon, as much as any tech giant, seems immune to bad press -- quite a feat during a year in which it squashed unionizing efforts among a workforce sometimes compelled to urinate in bottles, hired a former head of the National Security Agency, subsequently landed a $10 billion contract with the NSA, faced nearly $1 billion in various fines and saw numerous whistleblowers credibly contend that millions of customers' data was at serious risk.

It's not that people outside the industry aren't aware of these reports. In fact, with one click, I can see how many thousands of people read Laura's article and many of the articles I've linked to above.

It's a question of scale.


Tens of millions of people have likely visited this page in the past 24 hours.

Amazon; screenshot by David Priest/CNET

Traditionally, developers needed (and many still need) publications like CNET to share what they're building, and publications, if they're doing their job well, provide the perspective to understand the product: How does it really fit into the existing marketplace?

I can write insightfully about smart home products, for example, because I've tested nearly every major one.

But Amazon isn't like smaller companies, which often need the audience provided by popular publications to survive. The front page of Amazon is plastered with links to learn more about and buy the company's brand-new gadgets. A little back-of-the-napkin math puts Amazon.com's traffic on Sept. 28, the day of its largest hardware event of the year, in the ballpark of 100 million visitors. That's orders of magnitude larger than traffic for CNET's Amazon coverage of the day.

A fight worth losing

Amazon understands that it's more important, from a business standpoint, to be popular than to be good. And it's frighteningly good at being popular.

But to paraphrase Machiavelli's dictum: Why not be both?

I suppose calling on a megacorporation like Amazon to show temperance is in vain -- the company maintains power precisely because it's been doggedly intemperate. 

Its growth seemingly outpaces its ability to operate securely, too. According to the whistleblowers coming forward earlier this year, for instance, hundreds of thousands of former employee accounts still had system access after those employees departed. And in the context of a device like Astro, which is essentially a free-roaming camera on wheels, and which leaked documents indicate relies heavily on facial recognition software, such insecurity should be worrying.

"Customer trust is something we have to earn -- and work hard to keep -- every day," an Amazon spokesperson told me. "We designed Astro with privacy in mind from the beginning and built privacy in layers. This includes the use of local processing for Astro's mobility and computer vision systems, and offering transparency and controls that are in place for customers."

It strikes me as strange, though, that after facing criticism for announcing a flying drone camera from Ring last year, the tech giant's solution was to remove some of the crucial privacy measures in place in that device (like the camera-blocking dock), throw it on wheels and slap a cute face on it.


Astro is like the Ring Always Home Cam -- without any of the privacy features.


It's solution by way of misdirection, much in the way the invite-only hardware event soothes an increasingly sidelined (or stonewalled) media, or in the way self-congratulatory presentations by immaculately groomed presenters distract from the words being delivered.

"The question wasn't should we build it," said Gregg Zehr, president of Amazon's hardware and products innovation-focused Lab126, during the Astro video presentation, "but why wouldn't we?"

Whether he was intentionally evoking the similar quote from Jurassic Park is unclear. But the fact that ethics seem so alien a concept that they're so blithely (and again, unironically) dismissed is, for lack of a better word, bizarre.

Actually, let me try a few other words: frightening, appalling, and as was so much of the sci-fi referenced in the video presentation, dystopian.

Perhaps Amazon's popularity is a balloon, inflating ever nearer to the needle of a security breach. Or perhaps a breach will have as little impact on its reputation as the fines it continually racks up.

But this fight -- to talk about Amazon's very real and very concerning trajectory -- is worth fighting, even if it's a losing one.

Read moreAmazon has your future mapped out: Are you ready for it?

First published on Sept. 29, 2021 at 2:57 p.m. ET 

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