Few companies have done more than Amazon to dilute the meaning of the word “privacy.” A little more than a decade ago, “privacy” was a word used by people to describe the state of being alone and unobserved, away from prying eyes and ears. Today, so-called “privacy” policies are little more than legal disclosures vaguely articulating the numerous ways in which companies, like Amazon, intend to track their customers and gather their personal information
If privacy is dead, we can thank Amazon (among plenty of other companies, of course) for helping arrange its demise.
You wouldn’t know it, though, by listening to Amazon officials describe the slew of products it rolled out on Wednesday at its fall 2019 devices event. Privacy was woven throughout the company’s presentation. New commands coming to Alexa, Amazon’s personal voice assistant, will enable users to delete recordings of their commands—a big deal given the eavesdropping debacle in which Amazon was embroiled this year.
An in-depth investigation by Bloomberg in April revealed that thousands of human beings were listening to recordings of Alexa users in an attempt to improve its performance. Naturally, the company hid this from everyone, burying the language about it deep in its service terms—which, let’s be honest, no has the time to read.
The company fessed up but also attempted to downplay the invasion, telling reporters that its thousands of contracted and full-time employees only listed to “an extremely small sample” of the recordings.
What no one knew at the time is that Amazon had plans to greatly expand its line of products equipped with Alexa. On Wedneday, it rolled out new Echos, its microphone-equipped speakers; eye glasses called Echo Frames, through which Alexa can be accessed; the Echo Loop, a hideous looking ring that few people will actually buy; and various other mic’d-up products, like the Echo Flex, which you can be plugged into any electrical outlet.
With a privacy scandal hanging over its head, it fell on Amazon’s hardware and services chief, Dave Limp, to try and assuage everyone’s fears of being covertly monitored. “We’re investing in privacy across the board,” he told eventgoers, the Verge reported. “Privacy cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the devices and services we offer our customers. It has to be foundational and built in from the beginning for every piece of hardware, software, and service that we create.”
The new ability to delete Alexa recordings with a simple voice command—something that was not, you’ll note, built in from the beginning—also comes after Amazon was questioned by Senator Chris Coons and was forced to admit in a letter that it doesn’t always delete information sucked up by its digital assistant—even though it basically tricked customers into thinking that was happening. CNET revealed in May that while the company deleted the actual voice recordings, it was in some cases holding on to written transcripts of the commands.
“Customers have always been able to delete their Alexa voice recordings. When a customer deletes a voice recording, we also delete the transcript,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
What impact the scandals will have on Amazon’s ability to continue pushing microphone-equipped, internet-connected devices isn’t clear. But some of its other products feel just as equally ripe for abuse.
Amazon has announced a new “home” mode for its Ring surveillance cameras that it says will prevent recording when users are in the house—which is another way of saying Amazon could potentially have the ability to track when users are going in and out of their homes. (We have no indication it plans to do so, but concerns have lingered over other smart home devices with similar features before.) It’s also rolling out the Ring Fetch, a tracking device for pets, who while in the company of their owners will keep track of them as well.
Privacy advocates have basically given up on Amazon, believing that its promises about protecting its customers are too little and too late. Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said in a statement that the company simply cannot be trusted.
“Amazon claims ‘customers control their data’ yet they had plans for 911 calls to trigger all Ring cameras in the surrounding neighborhood to wake up and start recording,” she said. “This is what Amazon does. They make empty statements to sell their products and then continue to build a for-profit, surveillance dragnet without oversight and accountability.”
Update, 9/26: Added a statement from an Amazon spokesperson.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the option to delete Alexa recordings is new. Users could always do this in the settings. The new feature is the ability to do so by issuing Alexa a command. We regret the error.