How Video Tracking Can Invade Your Privacy

Always watching

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon’s Echo Show 10 is going on sale February 25, and includes a swiveling screen that can follow you around the room.
  • The $249.99 Show 10 is raising concerns among privacy advocates, who worry that users will never be off-camera.
  • Amazon insists that privacy is baked into the Show 10 design.
Echo Show 10 in Charcoal on a Kitchen Table
Amazon

Amazon’s new Echo Show 10 is raising privacy concerns now that it can follow you around the room. 

The Show 10 goes on sale on February 25 for $249.99. Unlike previous models, this one has a swiveling screen that can track your movements, so it always will face you during video conversations. Experts say the tracking feature opens a new front for privacy invasions.

"While this model includes the usual Echo-related privacy concerns (listening for its wake word, mistakenly hearing its wake word, access of recorded conversations by employees, other users possibly being able to see your conversation transcripts, and more), the Show can also track you around the room, meaning you're never off-screen," Chris Hauk, consumer privacy champion at Pixel Privacy, said in an email interview.

"While the device does offer the traditional built-in camera shutter that is available on most Echo Show models, I'd venture to say many users do not take advantage of that feature."

Watching You, Watching Me

The Echo Show 10’s moveable display can be a handy feature. If you're cooking, for example, you can always view a recipe on the Echo. Or, if you’re using Netflix—a brand new feature for Amazon's smart displays—you can watch your favorite shows while walking around your home.

Echo Show 10 in Glacier White on Kitchen Table
Amazon

A key privacy concern for the Alexa devices is making sure users know they’re listening, writes  Carla Diana in her upcoming book, My Robot Gets Me: How Social Design Can Make New Products More Human, Harvard Business Review Press (March 30, 2021). 

"When summoned, it does a good job of letting people know that it’s actively listening, with a moving highlight on a glowing light ring it points in the direction of the person it’s listening to," she writes. "When idle, however, it does a poor job of letting people know what it’s doing from a social point of view."

"The privacy concerns with the Amazon Echo Show 10 are the same as with any Amazon Echo device."

Amazon insists that privacy is baked into the Show 10 design. It says the model has multiple layers of privacy controls, including a microphone/camera off button and a built-in shutter to cover the camera. 

"The processing that powers the screen’s motion happens securely on-device, no images or videos are stored," according to the product’s web page. "Plus, you can control your experience with motion—leave it on all the time, during select activities, turn it off entirely, or set it to move only when you explicitly ask. Asks include, 'Alexa, stop following me' or 'Alexa, turn off motion.'"

Show 10 Has More Privacy, Expert Says

Caleb Chen of the privacy website Private Internet Access said in an email interview that Amazon has moved to address privacy concerns by making it easier to stop the camera from being used. 

"The privacy concerns with the Amazon Echo Show 10 are the same as with any Amazon Echo device," he added. "If used as intended, the device is an always-listening internet-connected microphone that could be one rogue employee or one secret court order away from being used to violate your privacy."

Echo Show 10 in Charcoal on a Living room Table
Amazon

While the ability to follow users around the room could be problematic, privacy-wise, it can also be advantageous for many users.

"I, myself, have attempted to have conversations with my in-laws, who don't quite get the idea of staying in the frame," Hauk said. "We have the same issues with our grandkids, who often jump out of frame. For this reason (among others), we usually conduct our video chats on our iPhone and iPad, via FaceTime. It's easy for our kids to follow the action of our admittedly energetic grandkids."

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