There was that word again, smeared across my feeds on Tuesday as Amazon unleashed its bevy of data-collecting, always-watching devices on a baffled and obstinate public. “Amazon’s robot is finally here, and I feel compelled to admit that it is cute,” tweeted Bloomberg tech editor Nick Turner, along with a link to their story about the “Alexa on wheels” robot, called Astro.
“Why?” I thought. “Why on Earth do you feel compelled to admit that it’s cute? Why are you not horrified, like me?” The disconnect between what I was feeling and this “cute” sentiment unnerved me. Turner was far from the only one to get a fuzzy feeling from this soulless contraption: The consensus from the writers whom Amazon granted early access to its robot seems to be this we should take this gadget seriously and seriously consider it as something we may want in our lives, roaming our hallways, scanning our children’s faces, running over our dogs’ tails.
Sure, there were cursory mentions of privacy in this embargoed coverage, and a growing chorus on Twitter echoed my visceral reaction against the Amazon robot. But from those early stories, concerns about how the device would negatively impact our lives was a whisper compared to the “Hell no, this is bad” screaming in my head and my gut. “Have we learned nothing?”
My fear is not merely that Amazon has invented a new way to invade our privacy and get richer in the process, although I’m afraid of and offended by that, too. It’s that caring about invasive technology makes me the weirdo. That far more people fall on the opposite side of the everlasting conflict between security and privacy than I do. That this doe-eyed little robot is the embodiment of, and a new catalyst for, everything that divides us. That people — most people — want this.
Mere hours after Amazon’s event, my privacy concerns were seemingly vindicated. Motherboard published leaked documents revealing the obvious: that Astro, which will cost $US1,500 ($2,089) after an introductory price of $US1,000 ($1,393) for Amazon-selected early adopters, is “first and foremost … a surveillance device that tracks you and everyone who enters your home.”
That’s what Amazon means when it advertises Astro as a “household robot for home monitoring, with Alexa,” that gives you “peace of mind,” whether you’re keeping tabs remotely on a home-bound loved one or just want to check if you turned off the stove. At least, that’s what it promises — one day, perhaps. As a developer who had the chance to toy around with the robot pre-release told Motherboard, “Astro is terrible and will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs if presented the opportunity.”
Amazon, of course, promises that Astro is “designed to protect your privacy” because it allows you to easily “turn off mics, cameras, and motion with one press of a button and use the Astro app to set out of bounds zones to let Astro know where it’s not allowed to go.” This assurance ignores the history of Alexa-enabled devices invading our privacy, of the company’s Ring cameras (which are built into Astro) creating a private surveillance network used to spy on our neighbours and send information to the police.
It fails to address the possibility that these devices could be hacked. And it glosses over the glaring reality that Amazon is actively building a ubiquitous surveillance system that it alone controls inside our most private spaces — as the Verge reports, establishing its dominance over a future of “ambient computing” is Amazon’s explicit goal. And it’s doing that by flooding the zone with “cute” internet-connected devices.
What Amazon’s Astro pitch addresses directly (albeit implicitly) is that a lot of people simply will not care about any of the concerns that are front of mind for me and my sceptical ilk. Amazon consistently ranks among the top three on Fortune’s annual “most admired companies” list. Last year, a poll by the Verge found that 91% of respondents had a favourable opinion of Amazon — higher than any other Big Tech company — and 73% per cent said they’d trust the corporation with their information, second only to Microsoft.
All of this is reflected in actual purchases: As of January of 2020 — nearly two years ago — Amazon said it had sold “hundreds of millions” of Alexa-enabled devices, at least double the number it had sold a year earlier. The privacy debate around smart speakers, once a hot topic, has faded into virtual nonexistence, save moments like this week when a new device jogs our memory. If there even is still a debate, it’s clear my side is losing.
The fact is, my strong preference for privacy is a privilege. I am physically capable of monitoring every room in my house without assistance, and none of my loved ones currently require remote monitoring. I live in an area with a low crime rate. I own expensive computers and phones that are capable of doing most of what a smart speaker (or smart microwave or stupid robot) can do. No one, as far as I know, is actively stalking me or trying to cause me harm. I don’t need any of these devices to make my life better because my life, as it is right now, is just fine without them.
And yet, I am also a hypocrite: I own a security camera (a Google-owned Nest one), which I use to keep tabs on my pets when we’re away from home. It otherwise stays unplugged and offline at all other times, but still, I use it. More importantly, I get why people want cameras monitoring inside and outside their homes at all times: anxiety and control. It can be nerve-racking to go out of town and not know whether your house is safe and still standing. Being able to pull up a feed of your front door or living room anytime you want reduces the anxiety of something happening that’s outside your control.
I fear, however, that this need to always be watching increases our sense that we need to always be watching — that disaster is right around the corner, even if it’s not. Polling has regularly found that Americans believe crime is more prevalent than it actually is. And while having a security camera may reduce the chance of someone breaking into your house, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program found that property crime rates are the lowest they’ve been since at least 1985, the earliest date for which the agency provides public data.
I also fear that self-imposed surveillance may serve to legitimise our fear of other people. When your doorbell keeps constant surveillance of your front porch, everyone who passes by becomes a suspect, especially if that someone is a person of colour. That’s not Amazon or Google’s fault, but it is a dynamic that appears to be amplified or legitimised by products these companies offer. In an era when we are increasingly living in our own little bubbles, it’s hard for me not to think that keeping constant watch of each other only serves to supercharge our worst instincts and further weaken our sense of shared community.
Beyond the privacy concerns I have with any internet-connected device — my phones and computers and Nest camera included — it’s the fact that Amazon, with its release of Astro, is once again forcing us to decide what kind of society we want to live in. Do we want to be able to patrol every room in our houses anytime we want from anywhere, just so we can breathe a little easier, or is that creating a toxic dynamic that we should avoid? I know how I’d answer that question, at least on principle, and I have a pretty good idea of how most people would answer — and the two would be radically different.
What I’m most frustrated with, then, is Amazon forcing us once again to make a choice so that it can make money. I wish Amazon would give us the space to grapple with the tech choices we already have rather than shovelling new decisions onto our plates before we even know what we’re eating. Ultimately, I wish it would just leave us alone. Wouldn’t that be cute?