The big takeaways from Amazon’s hardware event

The company is extending the reach of Alexa and Ring, though new privacy features don't address some major concerns.

On Wednesday, Amazon held its 2019 hardware event, where the tech and ecommerce giant unveiled its range of new products (and a handful of new services) that would soon be available to consumers. The focal point of the presentations was the slate of new hardware that would bring Alexa and Ring services to new areas and – by extension – potentially grow the user base and number of environments in which they could be used.

The Echo Frames and Echo Ring are two new products that take Alexa outside of the home, allowing users to talk and listen to Alexa through a pair of glasses or a ring worn on the finger, respectively. It also revealed a pair of earbuds, which provide high-quality audio while also working with voice assistants from other companies, such as Google Assistant or Siri.

For consumers who want access to Alexa capabilities without the price tag of the Echo smart speakers, the company followed up last year’s release of the low-cost Echo Button with the $30 Echo Glow lamp, as well as the $25 Echo Flex. Flex is a $25 microphone that plugs directly into an outlet and, while it doesn’t feature a speaker, does allow for voice commands of connected devices – as well as ports for add-ons, taking a modular approach to giving voice controls to other products, both from Amazon and third parties.

The Alexa Smart Oven is Amazon’s latest push into the connected appliance category, allowing owners to microwave, convection cook or air-fry foods, with a barcode scanning feature to suggest cooking methods and times. And for Ring – the company’s camera and home security division – it unveiled an indoor camera, which gives users the ability to monitor activity inside their homes from their smartphone. That joins the Ring doorbell camera that allows them to keep a lookout at their front door, to which Amazon has added a “concierge” feature for its “Elite” models, allowing Alexa to answer and screen visitors that approach.

More security features raise more questions

The other focus of Wednesday’s presentations was privacy, an increasing priority for a company with a flagship product that is “always listening.” After highlighting recently added capabilities that allow users to delete recordings Alexa has stored – or offering more transparency by asking it to play back exactly what it had recorded – the company revealed that it will soon allow users to automatically delete voice recordings in either three- or 18-month intervals. For Ring, it announced a “Home Mode” that would prevent recording when a user was home, following the launch of “privacy zones” earlier this year that allowed owners to set limits on the camera’s field of vision.

“Privacy cannot be an afterthought when it comes to the devices and services we offer our customers,” said Dave Limp, Amazon’s SVP of devices and services, at the presentation. “It has to be foundational and built in from the beginning for every piece of hardware, software and service we create.”

However, the features the company announced don’t address some of the bigger concerns that have been raised about Amazon’s data collection policies. For example, in a letter to congress sent over the summer, Amazon admitted that it held on to some data, even after voice recordings had been deleted. That was after it was revealed that humans had been listening in to conversations to improve Alexa’s AI functions, and may have been able to connect those recordings to personal information, like a user’s home address.

With the growing popularity of Alexa and similar smart speakers among kids, Amazon also announced a communication feature that would allow children to talk through Alexa devices after they had been authenticated by parents – but there have previously been concerns about Alexa recording children despite privacy and parental controls, which has been the subject of two lawsuits.

Last month, Ring released a map showing over 400 different law enforcement agencies the company is working with across the U.S. While Ring has stated these partnerships help it to create safer communities, privacy and civil rights activists – such as the ACLU – have expressed concerns that it is creating a surveillance network for law enforcement. Beyond that, earlier this year, reports were released saying Ring employees in Ukraine had been given access to a server containing nearly every video its devices had ever recorded.

Then, there is Amazon Sidewalk. Amazon announced it was creating a low-bandwidth network that would allow connected devices to work outside the range of Bluetooth and WiFi, while also avoiding the complexities of 5G networks. Amazon said it would allow devices to work up to one mile outside the home – though, it could be even farther if enough sensors have been deployed. And one of the services it previewed that could use Sidewalk was called Fetch, an offering from Ring that would allow users to track the movement of pets, even if they wander away from a home or yard. While useful for pet owners worried about their dog getting away, it’s an easy leap to see how it could also be used to track the movements of a person using any Amazon device – like the Echo Frames, Ring or Buds.

While these privacy concerns might seem like Amazon’s to address, they should also be top of mind for brands that might be thinking of integrating themselves with Amazon’s voice or connected home platforms. Privacy remains a top concern for Canadian consumers, especially when it comes to emerging technology, with more Canadians valuing the security of their data than their money.