The Amazon Astro Poses A Huge Privacy Threat

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The idea of robots helping us to do things has been glorified for years in movies like Wall-E and the Iron Giant. But, with the 2021 limited release of the Astro — Amazon's roving mini-bot, which is invite-only for now, users have the chance to deploy a personal AI assistant for $999.

You can think of it as a home surveillance camera on wheels. It can be programmed to move from room to room to give live views and updates via app, so you can see what's going on when you're not home. Additionally, this bot does almost everything that Alexa can do. You can set it to deliver messages and reminders right. Or, you can use it to talk to friends or family. It can even dole out treats to your dog if you decide.

There is a catch, however. Although these are all useful features that can benefit your home — they may at an expense to your privacy.

There are many privacy issues

There are privacy concerns that come with the type of access that Astro requires. Amazon is notorious for its invasive data collection policies that it uses to find out more about the shopping behavior of its customers. Not only does it mine enormous amounts of data while you browse its websites, it also collects audio, video and personal data information through devices such as Echo and Ring, according to Wired. In addition, Amazon is known to pay third-party contractors to listen to what you say to Alexa so that it can improve customer service (via The Conversation).

During setup, users choose which rooms Astro has access to. Astro can also livestream the audio and video it captures and uses facial recognition to identify people in users' homes, but it's worth noting that it will only detect people it has been set up to detect. For those that want to see what's happening in your home when you're out, but don't want to set up cameras in every room, Astro could be useful. In exchange, however, you'll likely hand Amazon exclusive data about your inner sanctum — which it can use how it sees fit.

Third-Parties Can Access the Data

The nature of Wi-Fi could make the Astro into a target for cyber attacks. Users of other Amazon devices like as Ring have seen firsthand how hackers are able to crack passwords to spy on their homes. In fact, a family in Mississippi discovered that hackers were taunting its eight-year-old daughter through their Ring device (via Today). As always with smart home technology, Astro's potential value in your home has to be balanced against its potential security and privacy implications, and that's a decision each owner will need to make for themselves.

According to McAfee Vice President, Antony Demetriades, who gave an interview with Trusted Reviews, a smart home device with a camera is potentially dangerous, as many of them have security vulnerabilities. "When an IoT (Internet of Things) camera is able to drive around your home, it unlocks a potential backdoor for hackers to enter," he said. "There's the risk that online criminals could use the camera to spy on consumers and gain access to their personal data."

CNET also reported that law enforcement officers can access footage from Astro's cameras with a court order. All they need is a search warrant to get access to data stored from Alexa or other devices. With Astro, police officers are able to view the inside of your home without ever having to step a foot inside.

Amazon's latest smart product is bound to cause mixed feelings — for good reason. The robots are coming, and it's up to you to know how much privacy you're willing to sacrifice for their convenience.

Update: Amazon responds to Astro concerns

Unsurprisingly, Amazon disagrees with the idea of Astro being a privacy problem. Regarding Amazon's policy on recordings, Astro PR manager Faiz Mandviwalla tells SlashGear, "Customers have several options to manage their recordings, including the option to not have their recordings saved at all and the ability to automatically delete recordings on an ongoing three- or 18-month basis. They can also delete their recordings by voice (e.g., 'Alexa (or Astro) delete what I just said') and can delete their recordings one-by-one, by date range, or by device at any time in the Alexa app or the Alexa Privacy Settings page."

On the topic of livestreaming, Mandviwalla adds, "To be clear, to access Astro's live view from the Astro app, you must both sign in with your Amazon login credentials and pair your mobile device with Astro. There is also an indicator light to clearly show when live view is active or when Astro is streaming video or audio to the cloud. Further, unless Astro is in Away mode or investigating, there is a short delay before a live view begins. You will hear an audible indicator and have an opportunity to cancel a live view before it starts. You can end an ongoing live view session by clicking 'stop' on the screen or by saying 'Astro, stop.' You can also press the mics/cameras on/off button to disconnect power to the cameras and microphones."

Responding to the claim that hackers used a family's Ring device to taunt their daughter, Ring's Emma Daniels said, "Ring has investigated the issue and does not have any evidence that this issue was related to a breach or compromise of Ring's system or network."

Finally, Mandviwalla had this to say about the notion that Amazon will provide footage recorded by Astro to police with a court order: "Amazon does not disclose customer information in response to government demands unless we're required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course."