Amazon’s camera-equipped Echo Look raises new questions about smart home privacy

Given all of the security concerns raised by the rise of the Echo and other smart home hubs, Amazon surely knew that adding a camera to one of its devices was going to reinvigorate the privacy debate. After all, an always-listening microphone is one thing — the Echo Look, with a camera designed to sit in its owner’s bedroom, is another question entirely.

It should be noted that introducing any device of this sort into your sleeping quarters presents an inherent privacy risk to some degree. Those people who put blue electrical tape over their laptop’s webcams aren’t just tin foil-sporting kooks. And indeed, at the very least the microphones on these devices are designed to be always on, listening for the trigger word that lets it start transmitting to the cloud.

Amazon’s responses to questions about the new device are a bit of a mixed bag, and due diligence should be employed by users with privacy concerns. Or more to the point, users should check the cost-benefit ratio of bringing this type of device into a part of the home where they feel vulnerable.

The company seemed a bit cagey about these sorts of questions in previous discussions, but recent news events like an Arkansas hot tub murder, of all things, have alerted users to potential privacy risks, and the company is taking a bit of a more proactive approach with regards to answering these questions outright.

“Echo Look uses the same on-device keyword spotting as Echo, to detect the wake word and only the wake word,” a company spokesperson tells TechCrunch. “When the wake word is detected, the light ring turns blue to indicate that Alexa is streaming audio to the AWS cloud.”

And, of course, there’s a button on the Echo you can press to turn off the microphone completely. A red slash will appear to indicate that the camera and mic have been disconnected. Or you can go ahead and unplug the thing, just in case.

That button is quite prominent on the Look, a design choice the company no doubt made in an attempt to nip some of the privacy questions in the bud. More importantly, according to the company, the camera (unlike the microphone) is always completely off until you trigger it through voice commands or the dedicated app.

Still — if I had one in my bedroom, I’d probably unplug it or throw a towel over the thing when it’s not in use. With internet-connected cameras, you just never know.

What happens to the video and photo content once it’s been captured? It all goes into the cloud — and stays there indefinitely, until the user deletes it. The content lives on the AWS in an encrypted form (it’s also stored on the mobile device that triggered it). Once there, “Designated Amazon personnel may view photos and video to provide and improve our services, for example to provide feedback through Style Check,” says Amazon. The company adds, “we have rigorous controls in place to restrict access to these images.”

As you’ve probably already deduced, the company reserves the right to serve up ads based on the information it gathers. That’s what Amazon (and Google and Facebook and pretty much everyone) does. However, the company adds that, “We do not provide any personal information to advertisers or to third party sites that display our interest-based ads.”

Which is to say, it’s worth routinely combing through the content that you capture to make sure there’s nothing you don’t want said designated Amazon personnel looking at. The company believes that its server encryption is secure, and it promises not to share any of that info, but the more these connected devices become a key part of our day to day lives, the more diligence we have to have to make sure they’re only seeing and hearing the things that we want.