January 29, 2023

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Perspective | In the ultimate Amazon smart home, each device collects your data

Here’s everything Amazon learns about your family, your home and you

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You may not realize all the ways Amazon is watching you.

No other Big Tech company reaches deeper into domestic life. Two-thirds of Americans who shop on Amazon own at least one of its smart gadgets, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. Amazon now makes (or has acquired) more than two dozen types of domestic devices and services, from the garage to the bathroom.

All devices generate data. But from years of reviewing technology, I’ve learned Amazon collects more data than almost any other company. Amazon says all that personal information helps power an “ambient intelligence” to make your home smart. It’s the Jetsons dream.

But it’s also a surveillance nightmare. Many of Amazon’s products contribute to its detailed profile of you, helping it know you better than you know yourself.

Amazon says it doesn’t “sell” our data, but there aren’t many U.S. laws to restrict how it uses the information. Data that seems useless today could look different tomorrow after it gets reanalyzed, stolen or handed to a government. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

We each have to decide how much of our lives we’re comfortable with one company tracking. Scroll below to see what Amazon’s products and services could reveal about you.

Echo speaker

Among the best-selling speakers in history, Echos respond to the wake word “Alexa” to summon the voice assistant to play music, answer questions, shop and control other devices.

What it knows: Collects audio recordings through an always-on microphone; keeps voice IDs to differentiate users; detects coughs, barks, snores and other sounds; logs music and news consumption; logs smart-home device activity and temperature; detects presence of people through ultrasound.

Why that matters: It counts snores? Yes, if you turn that on. Alexa can hear more than you might realize.

Amazon touts privacy controls like a physical microphone mute button, but when I downloaded my Alexa voice history, I found the Echo had recorded many sensitive conversations after its microphone activated unintentionally. (Amazon says its systems now double check whether you intended to say the wake word and label accidental recordings.)

Only after years of criticism did Amazon add a setting to not keep any audio recordings.

“Providing customers with transparency and control over their information has always been incredibly important to Amazon, and we believe we’ve been very good stewards of peoples’ data,” says spokeswoman Kristy Schmidt.

Ring doorbell

Acquired by Amazon in 2018, Ring doorbells have tiny cameras inside that let you live-stream, record and interact with whomever is at your doorstep — even if you’re not home.

What it knows: Live and recorded video, audio and photos of the outside of your house; when people come and go and you receive packages; status of linked devices like lights.

Why that matters: You’re not the only one who wants to peer through your doorbell. Police have made tens of thousands of requests for Ring video clips, and Amazon has handed footage to police without owners’ permission at least 11 times this year. (Amazon says it reserves the right to respond to emergency police requests when they relate to matters of life and death.)

Ring brought surveillance cameras to millions of more homes, igniting a privacy debate about recording neighbors without permission.

Fire TV or Omni TV set

The streaming devices allow you to watch video from Amazon and other services on any TV. The dedicated Omni TV set also contains microphones to talk to Alexa, displays information, and even springs to life when someone enters the room.

What it knows: What and when you stream on Prime Video; when you open or close third-party streaming apps; records audio for Alexa queries; the Omni TV also records information about what specific programs you watch using an over-the-air antenna.

Why that matters: It can reveal your interests, politics, joys and embarrassments — and it’s easy to forget Amazon is helping your TV watch back.

Kindle or Fire Tablet

They are Amazon’s answer to Apple’s iPad for reading books, using apps or streaming entertainment.

What it knows: What and when you read and watch entertainment and news; when you open, close and how long you use third-party apps; your location.

Why that matters: Amazon knows exactly how fast you read and how far you actually got through your last novel. Kindles and Fire Tablets are another way Amazon gets to know your tastes, which helps it sell you things.

Smart lights, switches or shades integrated with Alexa

Connecting these devices to Alexa allows you to control and automate your home, such as making lights turn off on a schedule, operate by voice or activate automatically when triggered by another sensor or device. Amazon says Alexa can interoperate with over 140,000 products.

What it knows: When and where in your house you turn lights on or off; energy use.

Why that matters: These devices add to a body of seemingly meaningless data that could help Amazon make inferences about daily rituals, power use and more. Amazon says it doesn’t use this data for advertising.

Unlike the privacy settings for Alexa voice recordings, Amazon offers no way to tell it to stop storing data from connected smart-home devices. (You can only set it to auto-delete after 3 or 18 months.) When I downloaded the data Amazon had collected about the third party Alexa-connected devices in my house, it contained more than 600,000 data points since 2019.

“Data enables, improves, and personalizes the features and experiences our customers enjoy,” says Schmidt, the Amazon spokeswoman.

Halo band

A health-tracking bracelet with a microphone and an app that tells you everything that’s wrong with you.

What it knows: Your activity and movement; heart rate; weight; sleep patterns; your voice (for tone analysis); images of your body for estimating body fat; food consumption, preferences and shopping lists.

Why that matters: Amazon wants to be your artificial-intelligence doctor, or, at least, life coach. But the Halo band can be invasive. Amazon says it doesn’t sell your body data, share it without your permission or use it to target you with sales pitches — but that still leaves plenty of other ways for the company to mine your information.

Echo Show

An Alexa smart speaker with a camera and screen for video calls, recipes and sharing family information.

What it knows: Collects most of the data from standard microphone-equipped Echo speakers, along with facial recognition maps for individual users (stored and processed locally); records video of areas in view of the camera; logs how you interact with on-screen widgets and skills; detects smoke alarms, glass-breaking or other activities.

Why that matters: The addition of a camera gives Amazon another view into your home. On some Echo Show models, the camera is always passively scanning for movement or faces, and Amazon could retain records about the faces it sees.

Echo devices also use your life to feed advertising. Researchers recently discovered Amazon uses data from how you interact with Alexa to target ads you see on Amazon and other sites where Amazon places ads. (You can opt out of Amazon ad profiling at this link if you log in.)

“We don’t sell customer data to third parties or use customer data for purposes that haven’t been disclosed to customers,” Schmidt says.

Echo Auto

A small speaker that brings Alexa to the car by tethering to your smartphone for a data connection.

What it knows: Collects most of the data from standard microphone-equipped Echo speakers, along with the location of your car; whom you call with Alexa.

Why that matters: Cars can reveal a lot about their owners, such as where they work, play and shop, and how they drive. Echo Auto gives Amazon the ability to record your car’s location while you’re on the road, and Amazon wouldn’t say how much of that data it keeps.

Garage door with Alexa or Amazon Key integration

The system allows you to open and close your garage door over the internet and share access for package deliveries through Amazon’s Key service.

What it knows: When you open and close the garage door; when you get deliveries.

Why that matters: You’re basically giving Amazon a key to your house and allowing it to know when you come and go.

Eero WiFi router

Another Amazon acquisition, Eero is a mesh-router system that can help ensure coverage gets to every corner of your house.

What it knows: Information about devices connected to your home network; statistics about data usage; performance statistics, including network speeds and internet service provider.

Why that matters: Eero started out as a less-invasive product, but questions linger about how Amazon could make use of information about the devices on your network.

Roomba vacuum cleaner

A vacuum cleaner that automatically roams around your house to clean, which Amazon is acquiring in a still-pending deal for $1.7 billion.

What it knows: Camera identifies obstacles and layout of rooms and furniture; when, how often and where you clean.

Why that matters: When the deal was announced, some Roomba owners balked at the idea that Amazon might gain access to maps of their home, created by the robots to help them clean. Even the vacuum data adds to Amazon’s inferences about your cleaning — and mess. Amazon declined to comment on the Roomba’s data practices because the acquisition has not closed.

Toilet with Alexa integration

The system allows you to create personalized settings for your toilet, including a preferred temperature and ambiance. You can even flush it with your voice.

What it knows: When you flush, or activate a cleansing spray or heated seat.

Why that matters: You can’t get much more intimate than your bathroom time.

Ring camera and spotlight

Online security cameras, some with motion-activated lights.

What it knows: Live and recorded video, audio and photos of outside or inside your house; radar to detect and identify activity; status of linked devices, like lights.

Why that matters: Ring video isn’t just staying inside the home. Amazon recently turned Ring clips into a reality TV comedy show, which frames surveillance as fun.

Ring also keeps records of some of what it learns from your cameras. When I downloaded my Ring data (use this link to download yours), it included more than 25,000 entries for each time its cameras noticed motion outside my home. Ring wouldn’t delete those records without deactivating the entire account.

Ring security system

A network of alarms and sensors that work with Ring cameras and can be connected to a monitoring service to request help from police or other emergency services.

What it knows: When you are home or away; when motion, window and door sensors are activated; your location; status of linked devices, like lights.

Why that matters: For greater security, Ring wants you to collect even more data about your home and its inhabitants. But it offers one nod to privacy: The Ring Alarm Pro version gives you the ability to store and process Ring video locally instead of in Amazon’s remote systems, making it harder for others (including law enforcement) to access the records.

Echo Frames

These glasses, with built-in speakers and a microphone, take voice commands any time, anywhere.

What it knows: Collects most of the data from standard microphone-equipped Echo speakers, collected directly from your face.

Why that matters: Smart glasses raise surveillance concerns, because it isn’t necessarily clear to those around you that the device could be recording them. Amazon says Frames are designed to respond only to queries initiated by the voice of their owner.

Ring Always Home Cam drone

A quadcopter with a camera that flies around the inside of your house to show you what’s going on when you’re not around.

What it knows: Live and recorded video along trained flight paths; layout of house for flight patterns; works with Ring Security System to know when there’s movement inside the house.

Why that matters: A drone brings Ring surveillance inside the home and leaves almost no corner unobserved. Could this device also be a gateway for Amazon to get people more comfortable with the idea of its delivery agents or workers coming inside homes?

Amazon said it would have more information about how its drone works when it launches.

Halo Rise

A bedside lamp that helps people track their sleep cycles and wake up gently with light.

What it knows: Radar reports on the nocturnal activity of the person sleeping closest to it; when you go to bed and wake up; able to interact with other Alexa-operated smart-home devices.

Why that matters: This device doesn’t use a camera or sensor on your body, but it still gathers lots of data about your breathing and movement, and it generates inferences about your wellness from them. Amazon says it doesn’t share this intimate data without your explicit permission, and its employees cannot identify the customers associated with Halo data.

Smart Soap Dispenser

A bottle that automatically dispenses soap, lights up a 20-second timer and can direct an Echo speaker to begin playing songs or jokes while you wash.

What it knows: When you wash your hands through a motion detector.

Why that matters: We don’t know what Amazon could do with data about your personal hygiene. Amazon says it needs the hand-washing data to help provide functionality.

One Medical membership or Amazon Pharmacy

One Medical is a nationwide subscription-based primary care provider that leans into technology for in-person, digital, and virtual care services. It is being acquired by Amazon in a still-pending deal. Amazon Pharmacy allows prescriptions to be shipped to your house, built out of an online pharmacy called PillPack.

What it knows: The services know your medical history, medications and body measurements. Amazon Pharmacy knows when and how often you order drugs.

Why that matters: Your body is the latest frontier for Amazon’s data ambitions. “As required by law, Amazon will never share One Medical customers’ personal health information outside of One Medical for advertising or marketing purposes of other Amazon products and services without clear permission from the customer,” said the company when it announced the acquisition. While your health information is covered by a federal privacy law, tech companies like Amazon are experts at getting around its limitations by convincing people to share their personal data for purposes that aren’t covered by the law.

Dash Smart Shelf

This shelf fits into your pantry and monitors when you’re running low on a particular product, so Amazon can automatically reorder.

What it knows: What products are on your shelf; when you’re running low or completely out of the product; when you’ve bought more.

Why that matters: This is one device where it’s clear why Amazon wants to have the data: to sell you more stuff from Amazon.

Whole Foods

Amazon bought the grocery chain in 2017 for more than $13.7 billion and offers Prime members home grocery delivery.

What it knows: What you purchase and eat, if you enter a Prime membership discount code at checkout; the details of your hand used for palm payment verification in some stores.

Why that matters: Your grocery purchases give Amazon insight into your lifestyle, which Amazon says it uses to make product recommendations.

Smart Air Quality monitor

The system measures five key areas of air quality and can automatically turn on a nearby fan or a purifier if the air quality drops.

What it knows: Sensor readings about particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, humidity and temperature stored for 30 days.

Why that matters: Amazon even knows about the air that you breathe, although it says it doesn’t use that data for advertising.

Basics Microwave

It’s a microwave that connects to WiFi, so you can heat up your food by asking Alexa to do it with the right settings.

What it knows: What and how long you’re cooking, if it’s operated through Alexa; how much popcorn you eat with an automatic reorder service.

Why that matters: The upside: You don’t have to look up how long to cook a potato. The downside: Amazon will now have a record of every time a family with this microwave cooks a potato.

Smart Thermostat

The device allows you to set up programs to optimize energy use and control your heater or air conditioner from afar.

What it knows: Home temperature; “hunches” about when you’re home, away or asleep; energy use.

Why that matters: The small data points can look meaningless, but they add up to a picture of your daily routines.

Astro robot

A domestic robot that uses cameras and other sensors to navigate your house (but doesn’t vacuum).

What it knows: Live and recorded video inside your house through a periscope camera on autonomous and directed patrols; layout of house; sound triggers, such as glass breaking or smoke alarms; presence and faces of people (through a visual ID processed on device); audio recordings of Alexa queries.

Why that matters: Robots look cute, but Astro is the culmination of Amazon’s surveillance capabilities. Astro recently gained the ability to be controlled by remote security guards for monitoring and even responding to situations. Nobody ever thought of Rosie the robot on Jetsons as a security guard, but so far, that’s Amazon’s most persuasive use for a domestic robot.