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How the Amazon Echo Look improves privacy

How the Amazon Echo Look improves privacy

Yeah, I said it. The privacy critics are dead wrong about Amazon's new A.I. bedroom camera.

Look! A new Amazon Echo!

The Amazon Echo Look is like the original Echo, plus a camera.

The $200 device delivers the Alexa virtual assistant. But the camera is optimized for helping you choose clothing to look your best when you get dressed.

The Echo Look is a camera for your bedroom. As such, it's being widely slammed as a massive invasion of privacy.

But this view is wrong and based on a provably false assumption.

I'll tell you exactly how the Echo Look actually improves privacy. But first, let's take a closer look at the Look.

Alexa as fashion consultant

The Echo Look is shaped like a oversized pill — a cylinder with rounded ends that appears to be about half the size of the original Echo. It sits on a stand or mounts to a wall.

echolook2 Amazon

The Echo Look is being slammed as a privacy-violating bedroom camera.

The Echo Look's camera is surrounded by LED lights for improving the pictures.

The camera activates only with the "Alexa" wake word, according to Amazon. A physical button tells the microphone to stop listening.

You activate the camera by saying: "Alexa, take a photo" or "Alexa, take a video." Pictures and videos are uploaded to Amazon's cloud servers, with a copy sent to the smartphone app.

A "pop" button blurs photo backgrounds. You can also share or delete photos from the app (you cannot delete photos from Amazon's servers) — or save pictures to a "Lookbook" in the app.

The Echo Look offers a service called "Style Check." This combines the fashion sensibilities of both artificial intelligence (A.I.) and human "fashion specialists" to help you choose between two outfits based on "fit, color, styling, seasons and current trends," according to Amazon. With "Style Check," you simply pick two photos, and the feature tells you which one is better.

Another feature called "Inspired by Your Look" suggests brands compatible with your style (in my case, any brand that makes jeans and t-shirts).

Technically, the Echo Look could use face recognition to switch user accounts in the same way the Google Home switches accounts using voice recognition, although this feature has not been announced and Amazon did not respond when I asked.

Big Brother is watching you... get dressed

Privacy experts are gnashing their teeth over the Echo Look. The original Echo put a microphone in your kitchen. The Look puts a camera in your bedroom.

Amazon takes customer privacy seriously, according to a company representative I spoke to for this column.

Amazon's security measures include "disallowing third-party application installation on the device, rigorous security reviews, and encryption of images and communication between Echo Look, the Echo Look app, and Amazon servers."

Amazon doesn't provide any personal information to advertisers or third-party sites that display Amazon's interest-based ads, according to the company.

In other words, Amazon is confident that nobody except the user and Amazon will ever see your Echo Look photos and videos. So what will Amazon itself do with the imagery?

Photos contain data. That data can be extracted using A.I.

Given the current state of machine learning, the Echo Look could do so much more than judge your clothes. There's no technical limitation preventing Amazon from using the Echo Look to guess your mood, weight gain or loss, pregnancy, sexual orientation and other facts about you. Photos also may contain data about your room or house — your furniture, carpeting, color preferences, amount of clutter or minimalism and what kind of artwork you have hanging on the wall.

All this visual data harvesting and processing could help Amazon sell you things, skewing Amazon results accordingly or offering its observations to partners selling on Amazon.com.

All this is theoretically possible. But they told me unequivocally that they have no intention of extracting signals from images for the personalization of results on Amazon.com.

Can we trust Amazon?

Certainly, Amazon can be trusted to act competently in the service of its own corporate self interest. That means Amazon can be expected to do whatever it can to keep your images and data from being hacked, it will maintain policies designed to not freak people out too much about privacy, and that it will use the data gathered now and in the future to encourage you to spend more at Amazon.com

Ultimately, Amazon's only interest is in selling you things — which is to say, to figure out exactly what you want and offering it to you.

Imagine visits to Amazon where literally everything you see on the site is precisely what you're looking for, matches your tastes and preferences and fits you perfectly. (Amazon told me that the Echo Look cannot currently estimate clothing sizes, but wouldn't speculate about the possible introduction of that ability in the future.)

In other words, the worst-case "harm" caused by Amazon's "abuse" of the Echo Look is: more relevant ads and search results — more showing you what you really want and less showing you what you don't want.

Yes, Echo Look photos, videos and data could be accessed by hackers, criminals, governments and others.

But even if all that happens, it doesn't matter.

How the Echo Look improves privacy

The Echo Look does not represent a new level of privacy invasion into our bedrooms. In fact, it improves privacy.

echolook1 Amazon

The Amazon Echo Look works just like the original Echo, plus it uses a built-in camera to help you get dressed.

In a perfect world, our privacy would be assured by never allowing cameras into our bedrooms and bathrooms.

However, we don't live in that world.

In the real world, there are two kinds of people: Those who want to take pictures of themselves after getting dressed and those who do not.

If you have no interest in photographing your "outfits" in the morning, then you will not buy an Echo Look. Your privacy will not be violated in a new way.

But if you do take pictures while getting dressed and share them on social media, the same is true: Your privacy will not be violated in a new way.

If you take bedroom or bathroom selfies and share them publicly, Amazon already has access to your photos. Take a look for yourself on Google Image Search. Or browse the Instagram hashtag #OOTD (the initials for "outfit of the day"), which returns 122 million results.

All the things privacy critics say Amazon could do with Echo Look selfies, the company can already do using the pictures people have already taken and posted online. So can Facebook, Google, China, the National Security Agency — anyone.

The only privacy difference between taking selfies with a smartphone and an Echo Look is that the Echo Look can give feedback privately using the "Style Check" feature.

Taking a picture with a smartphone and getting feedback on the outfit involves that picture being backed up in the cloud by Apple or Google, sending it out onto social networks, messaging apps, text messaging or email.

Taking a picture with a smartphone and sharing it online is incredibly insecure.

In other words, the Echo Look's main privacy difference is an option for privacy that didn't exist for people already using a camera to get feedback on their clothing.

The Echo Look is brilliant and will succeed wildly

From a product standpoint, the Echo Look is pure genius.

It hijacks a widespread behavior and makes that behavior better for the user. Echo Look photos are easier to take than mirror selfies are. They're hands-free. You get multiple angles and consistent lighting. Plus, you get a more private option for getting feedback on your outfit.

It markets itself, too. Users will start sharing Echo Look pictures on Instagram, Twitter and elsewhere with their friends, who will see the pictures and want the device.

It helps Amazon maintain leadership in the virtual assistant appliance game, which helps Amazon sell more stuff.

Amazon's somewhat surprising introduction of the Echo Look (after early leaks pundits guessed it was a security camera) coincides with a likely explosion in the category of virtual assistants.

Reports suggest that Apple will soon announce a virtual assistant appliance for the home that provides access to Siri, Apple Music and podcasts.

Amazon itself may introduce a version of the Echo with a screen, possibly dedicated to kitchen use. It may be announced as soon as next month.

The Echo Look will bring the mirror-selfie people into the fold, just as a kitchen Echo may attract the foodie faction — all of which will solidify Amazon's lead in the growing virtual assistant appliance market.

So the fears, criticism and negativity around the Echo Look are completely misplaced. The product is another winner.

I don't know if Amazon's Echo Look will help you get dressed in the morning. But it definitely makes Amazon look good.

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