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Amazon rolls out new devices amid swirl of privacy questions

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

SEATTLE -- It's an exclusive address, eye-to-eye with the Space Needle, where everything going on inside and out can be monitored for your safety and convenience.

"House number 729" on the 30th floor of Amazon's Day 1 tower, on Wednesday was a showcase for new and updated voice-computing devices and services from the Seattle company. The collection of security cameras, microphones, high-end speakers, displays and connected appliances represents a sweeping vision of automation, entertainment, ubiquitous surveillance and commerce permeating nearly every aspect of life.

At the center of it all is Amazon's Alexa voice-computing system, which was just a secret development project called Doppler only eight years ago. Since its commercial introduction in 2014, the system has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar business, attracting a growing group of industrial partners building everything from coffee machines to Christmas trees to cars that can be controlled with utterances received by high-fidelity microphones and interpreted by Amazon's nearly unmatched cloud computing power.

But privacy concerns are growing as Amazon and other tech giants push voice-computing technology and the hardware that enables it into more places and things. Dave Limp, Amazon senior vice president of devices and services, devoted about seven minutes out of the 80 he spoke to features that people can switch on to limit what is captured and kept. These include a new ability for people to automatically delete voice recordings after a set period of time, and, coming in November, to turn off recording by Amazon's Ring home security products when residents are at home.

Meanwhile, Amazon is fighting class-action lawsuits, including one in federal court in Seattle, over recordings of children who use its devices. It has come under criticism for partnerships with some 470 police departments to promote its Ring cameras and share footage, which civil liberties advocates find troubling.

And a report by Bloomberg earlier this year revealed that human annotators were listening to clips of Alexa recordings as part of a quality-control program, without customers' knowledge.

 

Other tech giants including Facebook, Google and Microsoft have similar practices. Limp managed to turn even this into a feather for Alexa's cap, noting that Amazon was the first company to allow users to opt out of the human review.

With the privacy discussion out of the way, Limp unveiled scores of new products, including three that would move Amazon's microphones directly onto people: earbuds, eyeglasses and a ring (for your finger) – the latter two positioned as experiments to be offered initially on an invitation-only basis.

These wearable devices would fill a gap left by Amazon's failure to develop its own viable smartphone. That puts it at a disadvantage to competitors Google and Apple, whose voice computing technology travels everywhere that Android and iPhone users take their devices. (Alexa can be used on smartphones through an app.)

Amazon's vision of ubiquitous sensing and voice control relies on wireless connectivity, which -- using existing technologies such as Bluetooth and home Wi-Fi, and even forthcoming 5G cellular networks -- has limitations, particularly beyond the boundaries of the home.

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