Ever since Amazon launched Astro — its stout, doe-eyed, autonomously mobile domestic robot — its been a curious sight to behold. When first unveiled last summer, a wealth of tech journos rushed to call the bot “cute” while others, myself included, found it creepy. All of us, however, were basically left wondering what the point of the whole thing was. It seemed like a product in search of a purpose: its supposed charms included the ability to roam around your house, talk to you, and even deliver beer, but critics were quick to point out that Astro had no clearly defined function aside from futuristic spectacle. Amazon clarified that Astro would be a helper (basically Alexa on wheels) and that it would also have security benefits.
Now, Amazon appears to have doubled down on that last front, and is making security Astro’s core identity. He is going to protect you from danger, we are told — in both your personal and professional life.
On Wednesday, the tech giant announced a host of new product updates, including new features for Astro. One of those features is an additional integration with Ring, Amazon’s controversial security company, which had already been partially linked with the bot. Amazon says that, moving forward, it wants Astro to assist both private residences and small businesses with security. The idea is to integrate the surveillance capabilities of Ring’s cameras and sensors with the autonomous investigative skills of Astro.
In this piece, we’ll endeavour to explain the downsides to that, and why what Astro really provides is a big, fat, smiling privacy hazard.
The Astro-Ring Integration, Explained
When Astro was launched, it already had a security component to it: Amazon designed the robot to pair with Ring Protect Pro accounts, which allows Astro to “autonomously patrol your home when you’re out,” and “proactively investigate when an event is detected” (an event being something bad, like a break-in). Videos taken by Astro of incidents could be automatically saved to Ring’s cloud storage for later viewing. Now, Amazon has updated the bot to give it an alternative security role: minding the store while you’re away.
Indeed, Astro can now be paired with Ring’s Virtual Security Guard feature, which was a service launched last year for small to mid-sized businesses. Much like its domestic security role, Ring claims that Astro can now “patrol” your business when you’re not there. It calls this “an innovative, cost-effective on-site security solution, which could complement — or even replace — the need for on-site guard patrol during off-hours.” In other words, the company envisions small businesses that can’t afford a human guard deploying Amazon’s souped-up Roomba to protect themselves. The company paints the picture this way:
“Imagine you have Virtual Security Guard at your business and head home for the night, arming your Ring Alarm. If the Alarm goes off, Astro will autonomously and proactively go investigate what happened, while professional monitoring agents use Astro’s cameras to observe what’s happening in real time.”
In addition to the business security solution, Amazon has also added additional home security features to Astro. As of this week, the robot can now check on specific doors and windows in your house, if you’re concerned about a potential break-in or some other problem. Astro can take pictures of those sections of the house and text them to you, allowing you to check what’s going on in your house when you’re not there. We can only assume that, as Astro grows and progresses, it will get better at this sort of thing — and will be able to more effectively identify objects and people.
Ring also released a video on Thursday that purports to show how Astro will save the day in the event of a break-in:
Of course, anybody who thinks about this whole Astro-as-security-guard thing for a couple minutes should come to the conclusion that the robot probably isn’t going to be all that helpful if you’re in serious trouble.
If You Want Protection, Get a Dog
Amazon has called its robot a “sentry,” but it’s not like Astro is going to actually protect you in a dangerous situation. Basically an iPad on wheels, the thing is hardly a formidable guard.
Amazon seems to suggest that Astro will help identify and intimidate criminals but, I mean, let’s just think about this for a minute: say a guy breaks into your business late at night. If he’s not a total idiot, this guy is going to be wearing a ski mask or some other facial covering — making Astro’s cameras pretty much useless. Now this masked dude is scrounging around your office, looking for stuff to steal, when suddenly he stumbles upon Astro. The robot is only about 17 inches tall. Given its size, it’s safe to assume that any self-respecting burglar will take the two seconds necessary to curb stomp Astro into oblivion and, voila, your expensive “security device” has just been successfully junked.
My suggestion? If you want a domestic security guard, get a German shepherd. They bite, they are loud, and their bark will scare the living bejeezus out of anybody who comes within a 6.10 m radius of your house. If you want to protect your business, meanwhile, I don’t see how Astro adds anything that can’t already be accomplished with silent alarms and security cameras. In that sense, the best thing you can say about Astro is that it’s redundant — and the more honest thing you could say is that it’s just a waste of money.
Amazon’s Plan to Turn Your Home Into a Surveillance Hub
Let’s face it: Astro isn’t going to keep you safe. Even the dumbest criminals are going to be able to outsmart it. Instead, what this robot really offers is more surveillance — albeit aimed at you, not neighbourhood hoodlums. Amazon has tried to play down the degree to which its little “domestic helper” is also a giant hoover of personal information — as all digital assistants are. The company offers controls that purport to moderate this data collection. It has also stressed how much of Astro’s data is processed “on-device,” meaning that it never leaves the robot and doesn’t enter the cloud. However, even with those mitigations, the amount of information being collected — and shared with Amazon — is quite substantial.
For instance, when introduced to a new environment, Astro uses its sensors to digitally map the floor plan of the building it’s in (that’s how it finds its way around). That data then gets sent back to Amazon’s servers, where it’s stored for future reference. Conversations that you have with Astro, meanwhile, are also stored in Amazon’s cloud. And if you sign up for Amazon’s new Ring integration, the videos that you save via the robot or your cameras are also stored in the cloud. In short, thanks to this robot, Amazon will have a map of your house, a catalogue of your conversations, and videos of the residence’s interior and exterior. But hey, that’s just the price of safety, right?
Smart homes are, by their very nature, surveillance hubs. Domestic security systems are necessarily connected to the cloud, which means that data is being collected about the inhabitants of the home on a regular basis, and that data is being stored on corporate servers. With the advent of Astro, the potential for an explosion of new kinds of such collection has only grown that much more invasive.
Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the privacy-focused Electronic Frontier Foundation, said to Gizmodo that he finds Astro’s new developments — especially the robot’s integration with Ring — disturbing. “I’m frankly surprised that people still exist that are willing to put these devices inside of their homes,” he said, referring to smart devices.
For Guariglia, there are a lot of potential downsides to having a product like Astro in your home or business. With all that data accruing in one place, there is always the possibility of a cybersecurity incident. Then there’s the potential for these surveillance instruments to be misused by abusive partners, as other security products have been in the past. Guariglia also imagines a scenario in which police eventually use Astro as a spying tool.
“I am concerned that Amazon, which has a really long history of working with police departments, is one bad day away from figuring out a use-case and some sort of interface allowing police to request footage or even request control over this robot,” he said.
Ring does have a controversial track record of working with cops. The company, which has “partnered” with hundreds of police departments all across the country, has spurred critics to call it law enforcement’s privatised “surveillance network.” This summer, it was revealed that in select “emergency” situations, Ring actually provides police with warrantless access to videos without informing the actual users of the cameras. Lately, the company has tried to shed its creepy image, partnering with MGM Studios to launch Ring Nation — a bizarre reality show that uses footage from real Ring security cameras for entertainment purposes (sorta like America’s Funniest Home Videos, but worse). If this sounds like a TV show that shouldn’t have made it out of the development phase, remember that MGM is owned by Amazon.
Guariglia adds that Amazon seems to be “finding ways to merge all of their different products into one suite of full-home surveillance: audio, visual, moving, stationary, inside, outside.” If Amazon’s Ring cameras surveil the exterior of your residence, Astro is designed to surveil the interior.
It’s not that Astro isn’t a miracle of technology: the combination of autonomous movement, AI learning, smart alerts, object and facial recognition, and other integrations is truly an impressive (if still ultimately creepy) technical achievement. However, such a tool of convenience and automation just can’t help but come with privacy risks that may ultimately outweigh its benefits, no matter how cute it is or convenient it might seem.
We’ve reached out to Amazon to ask for comment and will update this post when we hear back.
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