Amazon Astro’s Data Protection Features Leave Privacy Experts Concerned

Amazon’s Astro home robot probes deeper into our lives than the e-commerce giant’s existing technology, like its Ring security cameras and Alexa voice assistants. Astro’s array of features, including cameras, sensors and onboard AI, raise privacy concerns, especially because the robot is designed to make us love and trust it. 

Unlike stationary home security cameras, Astro can rove from room to room. It gets close to the people, furniture and appliances in your house. Whereas your dog knows the sound of your steps as you walk up to the door, Astro uses facial recognition scans to identify household members. The disarmingly cute robot will also map your home, study how you move around it and learn where to stay until beckoned. All the while, Astro totes along an Alexa voice assistant that streams your queries over the cloud.

To function properly, Astro needs an enormous amount of personal data. Much of it stays on the device and some of it, video and voice recordings, gets sent back to Amazon’s cloud. The data stored on the cloud needs to be protected both from theft by hackers and from any intrusive use by Amazon. Because Astro’s features give its owners the ability to monitor what’s going on in their homes at all times, the little robot could be especially dangerous for people in abusive relationships.

“It’s a very dystopian level of surveillance capitalism, just how much Amazon is seeking access to every corner of our homes,” said Will Owen, communications manager at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Program, “in this case quite literally.”

Amazon says it’s taken steps to dampen Astro’s potential creep factor, part of a broader effort to win trust of the technology. The robot’s chips process facial recognition and home-mapping data on the device so the information isn’t uploaded to Amazon’s cloud. Data on Astro and the cloud is encrypted. And Astro warns when a live view session is about to begin with a message on its screen, and people at home can press a button or say, “Astro stop” to prevent video from streaming. People in the house can put Astro in do-not-disturb mode to stop further attempts to stream video.

“At Amazon, customer trust is at the center of everything we do, and is critical to inventing devices and services that help make our customers’ lives better,” the company said.

Astro features and how they use your data

Astro collects and processes sensitive data in four main ways: sensors, facial recognition technology, video cameras and Alexa. 

  • Home mapping and movement tracking sensors: Astro creates a map of your home with its sensors, letting you label each room, as well as bar the robot from entering some of them. Astro watches how you and other household members move as a further way of avoiding tripping you. Amazon says the data collected remains on Astro, except for a rough map of your home that lives on the cloud so you can see it on your phone through a companion app. Amazon also says it doesn’t use data from Astro owners to improve the robot’s computer vision. 
  • Visual ID technology: Astro can run facial recognition scans of people in your home if you ask it to. Data is processed on the device, Amazon says. Astro will delete scans if it doesn’t encounter a person’s face after 18 months. Astro owners aren’t required to use the visual ID feature.
  • Video check-in cameras: Astro has a variety of video and audio streaming features that send and store recordings on the cloud. That includes video streamed while users steer Astro remotely around the house, as well as recordings from autonomous patrols of the house that Astro can perform for Ring Protect Pro subscribers. People at home with Astro can stop video checks from happening, either by setting Astro in do-not-disturb mode or by turning off the camera or microphone. Video and audio streamed from Astro is encrypted on Amazon’s servers.
  • Alexa: Astro doesn’t speak, but the Alexa voice assistant installed with the robot does. Your conversations with Alexa are uploaded to Amazon’s cloud, as are communications sent to you from loved ones and caregivers through Alexa. 

Amazon can change how it uses your data

Privacy advocates acknowledge Amazon’s effort to secure the data Astro uses. But ultimately, they say we don’t know what will become of it because Amazon could change its terms of service in a privacy threatening manner. That would force people to consider trashing a robot that will cost $1,450 when it’s made available broadly. (Currently, Astro is sold by invitation only, for $1,000.) 

Terms of service can also be vague, and Amazon has used customer data in unwelcome ways in the past. Until 2019, people didn’t know that human reviewers were listening to Alexa audio on a regular basis. The terms of service said requests made to Alexa were used to train its speech recognition software, but the terms didn’t explicitly state human beings might review those requests. Amazon responded to criticisms by allowing users to opt out of the review process

Amazon has a financial incentive to access data it’s currently leaving alone, says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“All of that data,” he said, “represents an absolute gold mine for people wanting to sell you things.”

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