For Amazon, these products offer the promise of taking a piece of the lucrative home security market and also pushing customers deeper into its ecosystem of household products. Other tech companies have stepped into this market over the years, including Google with its Nest Aware video recording system and Nest smart doorbell. Companies such as Logitech, Arlo and Netamo offer similar products.
But Amazon’s decision to expand its offerings in this product category comes at a time of widespread scrutiny of the power and data privacy practices of the tech industry’s biggest players. And Amazon’s latest eyebrow-raising security products, with their potential for greater surveillance in and around our homes, may test just how much further companies can push consumers’ comfort levels with such intrusive technology.
“Tech companies once promised a future like Star Trek, but Amazon is trying to sell us RoboCops,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project and a fellow at the New York University School of Law. “And while these products promise safety, they’re really a threat. These sensors would give us a disturbing new reality where it’s impossible to escape the tech giant’s roving drones within our own home.”
Privacy advocates also slammed a 2019 move by Ring to give law enforcement easier access to videos recorded on its doorbells for active investigations. (Since June, police and fire departments may only request information or videos related to an active investigation through public posts called Requests for Assistance.)
Following the publication of this article, Amazon told CNN Business privacy is fundamental to its products’ design. “We only collect information needed to provide and improve our customers’ experience. When we collect data, we secure it and use it responsibly to improve the experience, while providing customers with transparency and control over their information,” a spokesperson said.
How Amazon is trying to get inside customers’ homes
Amazon kicked off its presence in our homes in 2014 with the Echo speaker, which became a hit for the company. Amazon has since crammed its Alexa virtual assistant into every kind of device imaginable, effectively acclimating its users to the possibility of the company listening to them all the time in exchange for greater utility. Now, its latest products are basically pitching that on steroids.
“Clearly we are moving into different territory now with the arrival of more experimental products such as the Always Home mini-drone camera and the Astro robot, but I believe that Amazon is using their products to learn more about consumers’ willingness to have such devices in their homes,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at market research firm CCS Insight. Wood also said some consumers are willing to accept tradeoffs around privacy for the feeling of reassurance and security that products from companies like Amazon provide.
Amazon appears to be taking steps to make that tradeoff feel less severe.
A Ring spokesperson told CNN Business any agent monitoring a stream from its Virtual Security Guard service cannot access saved recordings, or download or store any videos, and customers will know what events were viewed by an agent. Customers can also set up privacy zones that are off limits for agents, but this may be small comfort to visitors and random passersby who are still caught on camera.
Then there’s the appearance. Amazon has dressed up surveillance technology as an adorable companion watch dog, making it much more appealing for customers, according to Jonathan Collins, a director at market research firm ABI Research. “Cute-ness is subjective but certainly the more emotionally invested someone is with a device — and that can be driven by pleasurable visual or audio exchanges — the more it is likely to be used,” he said.
Astro, however, builds on the company’s strength in robots, artificial intelligence, computer vision, sensor technology, voice interactions and edge computing, Wood said. Coupled with Amazon’s reach and scale, this launch is far more notable, he added.
“With an introductory price of $1000 and a small number of units available to a limited audience I believe the Astro robot will sell out in minutes when it becomes available in the US market,” Wood said. (It ultimately will cost $1,500 after an invitation-only purchasing period.)