Since launching the Amazon Echo in 2014, Amazon's line of smart home gadgets continues to grow. The retailing giant has since introduced dozens of smart home gadgets into the market.
From smart speakers and thermostats to cameras and flying robots, Amazon has thought of everything. Unfortunately, privacy concerns have always been a concern.
With the launch of the Astro robot, similar cries of privacy violations have once again emerged. But are these concerns justified?
Amazon and Consumer Privacy
Like other major manufacturers, Amazon's sprawling line of smart home gadgets has always been fingered as a threat to consumer's privacy. Millions of people around the world have either opened their homes to an Amazon microphone that's always listening, a camera that's always watching, or both. If you own an Alexa-powered device, you're probably caught in that net already.
However, the problem is not the presence of these gadgets in our homes. It is about what could go wrong in terms of privacy violations. Amazon has always sung its own praises in terms of protecting consumer privacy.
To be fair, the company has always put in a lot of work in that regard. Some of its cameras come with shutters. And microphones on the company's smart home gadgets can be turned off. Cloud data culled from your home can be deleted.
Unfortunately, these measures barely scratch the surface of privacy concerns. The bulk of what consumers and critics really fear is typically perpetrated by Amazon itself.
One of such concerns is Amazon's collaboration with local police departments. According to this CNET report, some local police departments, in collaboration with Amazon, gave out free Ring video doorbells under the condition that police have unrestricted access to the video footage it records. This is unrestricted access to everything that goes on within the Ring camera's field of view—and that's a lot of things.
Even more concerning are reports of in-house privacy violations by Amazon staff themselves. In a letter addressed to the U.S Senate, and reviewed in this CNBC report, Amazon executives said some of their staff broke the rules to view video footage from their customer's Ring cameras.
Now, with the launch of the Astro robot, Amazon won't just have a camera in your home. The company is offering you a full-fledged housemate—one that can crisscross your entire home and listen in on your conversations.
Obvious Privacy Loopholes of the Amazon Astro
The most apparent privacy loophole of the Astro robot is in one of its greatest strengths—mobility. It's one thing to have a camera staring at a fixed field of view, but it's a different ballgame to have one that moves around your home. There is going to be a lot of video footage it picks up that you don't want sitting around in the cloud.
Fortunately, Amazon says it deploys in-device storage and processing on the Astro. In principle, this means, if your Astro ever captures private footage, it will never get to Amazon's cloud storage. While this is what Amazon would love us to believe, reality tends to tilt away from that.
Barely hours after its launch, a leaked internal document reviewed by Vice's Motherboard showed that the Astro robot was designed to send loads of consumer data to the cloud. Although this data may not necessarily be video footage or audio recording from an Astro unit, it would nonetheless be personal data.
Interestingly, Amazon actually needs this data to improve the Astro's intelligence. The concern with smart home devices that collect data, in this case, detailed data of activities that go on in your home, is who has access to this data and what they use it for?
Tech giants like Amazon typically make it hard to understand what happens with your personal data. They have an opaque privacy model. As the data collected by smart gadgets like the Astro robot can be particularly granular, it can be used for just about anything.
There's no assurance that the company wouldn't unethically use the data to target consumers for sales or for other obscure purposes.
Let's pretend for a second that everything the Astro records stays on the Astro. This eliminates a potential incident where Amazon staff go around snooping on your footage. However, it raises a security-related privacy concern.
Just how secure is the Astro robot? Is its security tight enough to ensure that your private footage remain private?
What Could Go Wrong with Amazon Astro?
In a December 2019 incident reported by the Wall Street Journal, a hacker gained access to a Ring camera and used it to shout obscene words to an 8-year-old in her room. The hacker wasn't just able to speak to the girl; he could see and hear her. Worst off, the hacker could have been watching for days. He even had the option to keep watching as long as the camera was there.
While the incident has since fizzled away from the headlines, the hacking threat remains. There's a likelihood of a similar incident occurring with the remotely-driven Astro robot. It's chilling to imagine a hacker taking control of a robot that can access every part of your home.
However, to assuage such fears, Amazon was very particular in stressing some of Astro's features that could stop this from happening. The company says Astro robot owners can specify a movement path and instruct the robot where to go and areas that are out of bounds. With this feature, you can tell the Astro to avoid ultra-private areas like your bathroom.
Additionally, the app that controls the robot must be paired with it to access the live stream. There'll also be a way to show which mobile device is currently in control of the robot.
Another interesting countermeasure to keep snoopers at bay is an indicator light on the Astro's periscope camera. The indicator light will turn green to indicate that there's streaming in progress. If a hacker breaks into your Astro, you should be able to see if there's currently a live stream.
At the press of a button, you can turn off Astro's cameras and microphones, effectively preventing it from capturing audio and video footage. You can do this whenever you want to engage in activities you wouldn't want the Astro to record.
Can The Amazon Astro be Hacked?
Before you start worrying about what could go wrong if hackers break into your Astro unit, can the Astro robot even be hacked? How easy would it be to pull off such a hack?
Since the Astro Robot is still new, it's a bit too early to establish exactly how hackable it is. However, there's no such thing as a foolproof security measure. Poke any smart home gadget long enough, and you'll find security holes.
Even with the raft of security measures deployed on the Astro, the robot is not without vulnerabilities. Smart home gadgets are typically awash with security holes. From exposed ports to poor software update processes, there are generally tiny holes for hackers to remotely access this kind of device.
A number of them have been hacked several times in the past. Because the Astro robot is operated from a mobile app and can interface with other smart home gadgets, it has a direct connection to your phone and the Internet. This sort of operational condition is a homing beacon for hackers. It then boils down to just how good Amazon is at blocking security holes.
A Tradeoff Between Privacy and Convenience
While some call the Astro Alexa on wheels, critics call it a privacy nightmare waiting to happen. However, no matter of what you think about the Astro, it remains a fantastic gadget that could come in quite handy.
Need a digital guard dog? Need a futuristic gadget that moves around your home, can carry a pizza or two, winks, and can help with home automation? Get an Astro. It's really up to consumers to make the tradeoff between privacy concerns and convenience.
Whether the privacy concerns will morph into potent threats, or they'll remain the ramblings of critics, only time will tell.