Amazon's New Echo Device Will Be Watching

By Laura Stevens Features Dow Jones Newswires

Amazon.com Inc. knows what hundreds of millions of people buy, and it already has millions of its smart speakers listening inside people's homes. Now it is selling devices that can watch you, too.

Continue Reading Below

The Seattle-based retailer on Tuesday unveiled the new Echo Show, a successor to its speakers powered by artificial intelligence and released in 2014. The Echo Show builds on its predecessor by adding a 7-inch touchscreen and a camera for video calling and other capabilities.

That camera also acts as a motion detector. The feature is designed to wake up the device when someone appears in its range, and it could raise privacy concerns at a time when companies increasingly know more about consumers, from their shopping habits to their locations.

Amazon in recent weeks has introduced a number of new devices and services designed to integrate the company further into consumers' homes, as it faces off against similar devices from Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Microsoft Corp., and a rumored smart speaker that may be offered by Apple Inc.

Last month, Amazon announced the Echo Look, a device to help users take pictures of their clothing and judge outfits. While the Echo and its successor are aimed primarily at kitchen counters, the Echo Look is seemingly meant for bedrooms. That device's camera, though, has to be turned on.

It is inevitable Amazon and others would add a visual component to smart speakers to better monetize them, said Albert Gidari, director for privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

Continue Reading Below

"The question is: What is the screen going to see, and who is going to see it?" Mr. Gidari said. Those are important questions, even with current privacy controls, he said.

Echo devices listen for a "wake word," which is typically "Alexa," the name of its AI assistant. Audio is sent to the cloud only after that word is heard. Anything else is continuously overwritten.

While Amazon has gotten millions of Echo owners comfortable with the device's eavesdropping, video might be a tougher sell. The motion sensor on the Echo Show is constantly scanning the room to detect movement, so walking by is the visual equivalent of a wake word.

The system processes images locally on the device and not on the cloud, and discards them, an Amazon spokeswoman said. Video is streamed to the cloud only during a call, though no data is stored. Like the original Echo, the device indicates when it is actively streaming, and there is a button to shut off the camera and microphone.

Nothing said to Alexa is used for marketing, the spokeswoman said. "Obviously we realize that privacy and security are incredibly important to our customers," she said.

Other new features could require nimble maneuvering to avoid privacy collisions.

The Echo Show's new "Drop In" function will let users start a call without needing the person on the other end to accept. The receiver is notified there is a call; audio begins immediately, while a frosted glass visual fades into a clear picture over the course of 10 seconds.

The feature is optional and only works when someone grants a contact permission to drop in. Not accepting a drop-in is easy enough by saying, "Alexa, hang up." But it could lead to awkward situations if the receiver wants to reject the call but isn't able to give the command quickly enough.

This week, Amazon also said it is adding the ability for all Echo devices and Alexa apps to place calls and send messages to contacts who also own Echo devices or have the app. The company envisions it working like communal speaker phones, not private devices.

For now, users on the same account -- think of a family that uses an Echo under one profile -- will be able to listen to messages and calls indiscriminately. That means if a teenager is waiting for one, a parent or younger sibling might intercept it, a throwback to land lines and answering machines.

Messages will be stored in the cloud, part of the company's efforts to improve speech-to-text transcription. Actual calls, though, aren't stored, the spokeswoman said.

Write to Laura Stevens at laura.stevens@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 11, 2017 14:03 ET (18:03 GMT)