Ever since Amazon launched Astro—the stout, doe-eyed, domestic robot—its seemed like a product in search of a purpose.
When first unveiled last summer, a wealth of commentators rushed to call it “cute” while others, myself included, found it creepy. All of us, however, were basically left wondering what the point of it was. 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 outside of futuristic spectacle. Amazon had pitched Astro as a helper (basically Alexa on wheels) that would also have some security benefits, but it wasn’t clear what direction the product would ultimately lean.
Now, Amazon appears to have doubled down on the robot’s security function, and is charging full steam ahead to make Astro the automated guard dog you never asked for.
On Wednesday, the tech giant announced new features for Astro, including an additional integration with Ring, Amazon’s controversial security company. The tech giant 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 endeavor to explain the downsides to that plan, and why what Astro really offers is a big, fat privacy hazard.
The Astro-Ring Integration, Explained
When Astro was launched, it already had a security component: 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.” With this feature, videos taken by Astro of incidents can be automatically saved to Ring’s cloud storage for later viewing, presumably to help you catch a burglar if they breaks into your house.
Now, Amazon has updated the bot to give it another 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, this souped-up Roomba is supposed to take the place of an actual security guard. 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. Ring released a video on Thursday that purports to show how Astro will save the day in the event of a burglary:
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 seems to suggest that Astro will be able to help identify and intimidate criminals, but 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 20-foot 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. Instead, what this robot really offers is more surveillance—albeit aimed at you, not neighborhood 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 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 this data collection to become all the more invasive has grown exponentially.
Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the privacy-focused Electronic Frontier Foundation, told 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 law enforcement. The company, which has negotiated hundreds of video-sharing partnerships with police departments across the country, also recently revealed that in select “emergency” situations, it actually provides cops with warrantless access to videos, without even informing the 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 cameras for the purposes of entertainment (sorta like America’s Funniest Home Videos, but worse). If this sounds like a TV show that shouldn’t have made it out of development, 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 technical achievement. However, such a tool can’t help but come with privacy risks that may ultimately outweigh its benefits, no matter how cute or convenient it may seem.
We’ve reached out to Amazon to ask for comment and will update this post when we hear back.