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January 12, 2022 30 mins

In this episode we take a look at several different Amazon company products to see if they’re running surveillance on your home or not.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer,
because you guys paid progress. You guys paid problems. This
is Megacorp, an investigative podcast exposing some of the world's
most unethical corporations. This series is about Amazon. I'm Jake Hanrahan,

(00:24):
journalists and documentary filmmaker. Megacorp is produced by H eleven
for cool Zone Media. So we've spoken about the awful
work conditions in the Amazon warehouses, the company's disregard for

(00:46):
health and safety, and we've also looked at how Amazon
manages to avoid paying millions of dollars in tax. Now, though,
we're going to move on to something different, because, as
I've mentioned, each step up the Amazon pyramid of facori,
there's a new scandal to be examined. In this episode,

(01:08):
we're going to be asking the question, is Amazon spying
on you? We know the government is, we know social
media is, we know Google is. But what about Amazon?
A company that, in its delusion, prides itself on being
the smiley, happy face of the consumer experience. Let's find out. First,

(01:29):
let's take a look at Amazon's range of smart speakers. Now,
if you don't know what a smart speaker is, consider
yourself lucky, but to explain. The smart speaker, sometimes referred
to as a home assistant, is an Internet enabled two
ways speaker system that basically replaces getting up and pressing

(01:52):
buttons in your home. For example, if you want to
search for something online, you can ask the smart speaker
to do it. If you don't want to just get
up and switch off the light, you can program the
smart speaker to do it on your command. Some of
the most advanced smart speakers can be programmed to basically
run your whole house for you. Amazon leads the global

(02:15):
market when it comes to smart speakers, but the start
of they'd sold a hundred million That sold sixteen point
five million smart speakers by the fourth quarter of twenty
and almost seventy of smart speaker users in the US
favor using the Amazon Echo. The Echo is their most

(02:36):
popular smart speaker. It's enabled with Alexa. Alexa is basically
the technology that makes Amazon's smart speakers work. Alexa is
a virtual assistant cloud technology that is able to learn
things as you use it in a more detailed way
of speaking, Alexa is a voice activated user interface that

(02:59):
you uses a combination of machine learning and artificial intelligence.
To function. It all sounds very futuristic, but it's here,
it's now, lots of people have it now. Personally, I
can be a bit of a luddy and I do
not understand why anyone would want such a device in
their house. However, as I just said that many many

(03:22):
people do, this is helping Alexa learn, yeah, literally learn.
The more commands Alexa receives, the more Alexa develops. In fact,
Alexa has learned one hundred thousand new skills since the
technology was first launched in November. So to sum up,
through the Amazon Echo and its utilization of Alexa, Amazon

(03:46):
has a reach into hundreds of millions of homes across
the world. So you'd really hope, for the sake of
personal autonomy and privacy that they're not listening into your
conversations through the smart speakers. Right Well, in t nineteen,
it emerged that Amazon employees had been listening to voice

(04:09):
recordings captured via the Echo in consumers homes and offices.
This wasn't a couple of rogue employees either, No, Amazon
literally hired thousands of people to do this. The job
was to not only listen to what you're saying, but
to also transcribe and annotate it. They would then feed

(04:29):
it back into the software with the aim of apparently
helping Alexa better understand voice commands. Of course, this raises
extremely serious questions about citizens personal privacy. But it gets
even worse. Reported by Forbes, the people tasked with listening

(04:49):
to your conversations quote required to record the data, whether
the device has been activated on purpose or not end quote.
So basically, they can listen into your conversation even if
you don't want them to. So by buying an Amazon Echo,
you've essentially invited an employee of Amazon to listen into

(05:14):
your private conversations, whether you've given Alexa command or not.
If Big Brother is always watching, it's clear now that
Amazon is always listening, that is, if you've got one
of these smart speakers in your home. Now, apparently, if
the people hired to listen, in record, and annotate conversations

(05:34):
in your home via the Amazon Echo here private data
such as your bank details, they're told to just mark
it down as critical data and move on. Let's hope
every single one of the thousands of people Amazon employed
to do this honest and didn't steal anyone's details. Now,

(05:56):
according to this Forbes article. One of the darker elements
to this situation is that two workers employed to log
the conversations thought they heard a sexual assault. When they
reported it to their superiors, Amazon ironically enough, told them
it's not their job to interfere. So Amazon will listening

(06:16):
to your conversations to improve their software data. But if
they hear someone being sexually assaulted, they don't want to
do anything about it, according to this article. Now, unfortunately
it doesn't stop. They're not at all. Let's talk about Ring.
Ring is a home security company owned by Amazon. They

(06:37):
bought it in eighteen for one billion dollars and now
millions of people across the world used the technology. Ring
provides a line of WiFi connected security cameras for your home.
You've likely seen footage of Ring doorbell security systems online.
Is basically a little camera in the doorbell or wherever

(06:58):
they put it in their house that allows the homeowner
to see what's going on outside before they open the
door or inside, for example, if they want to keep
an eye on their kids as they're plane. Through the wifire,
you can have Rings set up on your phone or
your tablet or your laptop or wherever it's not a
bad idea, but they have been at several problems with

(07:19):
Amazon's Ring, so let's start with the hackers. This is
particularly dark. It was reported by journalists Joseph Cox and
some month of Cole that hackers had built themselves a
dedicated software for hacking into Amazon's Ring security cameras. It

(07:41):
becomes clear how funked up this is when looking at
a story from Mississippi in the US, where it was
discovered that hackers had managed to get into a ring
security camera placed in the bedroom of three young girls,
one of them was just eight years old. Hacker managed
to take control of the ring security camera, playing music

(08:04):
through its speaker as the young girls played in their room.
Daker was watching them the whole time. Dakker then played
the song Tiptoe through the Tulips, and when one of
the young girls asked who was there, the hacker replied,
it's Santa, it's your best friend. Here's the actual recording
of these hackers interfering with the Ring camera in the

(08:26):
room of these young girls. I'm your best friend. I'm
sand a clause. I don't you want to be my
best friend? You can mess up your room, you can
break your TV. You can do whatever you want. In
another incident of the same year, a hacker took control
of a RING security camera in Florida and began screaming

(08:50):
racist comments at a family for up to three minutes
before they were forced to pull the batteries out of
the Ring unit. So why was this happening, Well, essentially,
Amazon's Ring wasn't requiring its users to choose two step
verification by default. With something as delicate as in home
security cameras, this should have been a standard requirement for

(09:12):
all users, because without the two steps, it was a
lot easier for hackers to get into their system. In fact,
reporters Joseph Cox and Samantha Cole found that hackers were
building and sharing programs to access RING cameras on criminal forums.
This of course sets a very dark precedent. If that
wasn't bad enough, though, it was later discovered that Ring's

(09:34):
own employees had been improperly accessing Ring users video data.
Amazon's Ring employees were spying on customers themselves. It was
discovered that four of Amazon's Ring employees had been fired

(09:57):
after abusing their position. They had watched footage from Ring
security cameras without the customer's knowledge or permission. This all
came out when Amazon Device President of Public Policy Brian
Huesman answered U S Senators in a letter after they
had written to Amazon expressing safety concerns about RING devices

(10:18):
in November twenty nineteen. In the response letter from Amazon
obtained by Motherboard, the question and answer is as follows
quote question to your knowledge have there been any documented
instances of this access being abused? Answer? Over the last

(10:38):
four years, RING has received four complaints or inquiries regarding
a team member's access to RING video data. Although each
of the individuals involved in these incidents was authorized to
view video data, the attempted access to that data exceeded
what was necessary for their job functions. In each instance,

(10:59):
one Ring was made aware of the alleged conduct, RING
promptly investigated the incident, and, after determining that the individual
violated company policy, terminated the individual. In addition to taking
swift action to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action in
each of these cases, RING has taken multiple actions to

(11:21):
limit such data access to a smaller number of team members.
RING periodically reviews the access privileges it grants to its
team members to verify that they have a continued need
for access to customer information for the purpose of maintaining
and improving the customer experience end quote. So effectively, Yes,

(11:42):
Amazon has found several cases of Ring employees literally spying
on their customers. Now you might say, oh, well, this
is only four employees. Well, I would argue that this
is only four employees that got caught. Amazon's Ring has
clearly been sloppy with its security see both externally and

(12:02):
internally reported by The intercept In. Sources inside Ring said
that they had provided their research and development team in
Ukraine unfettered access to quote a folder on Amazon's S
three cloud storage service that contained every video created by

(12:23):
every Ring camera around the world end quote. Not only this,
at the time, the video files were left unencrypted, anyone
from the team could download someone's sensitive security camera footage
with the click of a button. The source also said,
quote Ring unnecessarily provided executives and engineers in the US

(12:46):
with highly privileged access to the company's technical support video portal,
allowing unfiltered, round the clock live feeds from some customer cameras,
regardless of whether they needed access to this extremely sensitive
data to do their jobs. End quote. Imagine that people
are Amazon's Ring company able to look into your home

(13:08):
at seven on a live feed whenever they want to.
That sounds like spying to me, even if there's no
intention of doing anything bad behind that they shouldn't have
had the access. Now. Whilst Ring pointed out to US
senators that for employees in Ukraine had been caught and
fired for spying on customers, it seems, at least according

(13:30):
to the source, that they failed to mention how these
employees were able to do so. That is rings sloppy
internal security when it comes to allowing workers access to
Ring security video. So there's the issues with Amazon's Echo
smart speakers and the issues with Amazon's Ring home security devices.

(13:52):
After all that it might allow you to discover the
Amazon is now making little robots for your house, they too,
have already raised serious privacy concerns. Astro join me on
stage today. I'm full to introduce you to a new

(14:15):
kind of household robot that integrates Alexa advanced hardware, software,
computer vision, and AI in a brand new way. And
it's a beautiful illustration of how ambient computing can improve
customers lives in a way that traditional consumer electronics just
kept if you didn't know. Amazon's Astro is a new

(14:35):
three wheeled little robot that can autonomously drive around your home.
Is packed with cameras and has a little screen on
the front with two eyes. It's meant to be cute,
but honestly, it looks a little bit creepy. The idea
behind Astro is that it will map the layout of
your home and act as a little robot butler, so
long as everything in your house is hooked up to

(14:56):
the same system as Astros Amazon's. Is this about Astro quote?
Astro is a household robot for home monitoring with Alexa.
When you're away, use the Astro app to see a
live view of your home, check in on specific rooms
and viewpoints, and get activity alerts. When you're home, Astro

(15:17):
can follow you from room to room, playing your favorite music,
podcasts or shows, and find you to deliver calls, reminders, alarms,
and timers set with Alexa. End quote. Honestly, it sounds
fucking horrible, but that's Astro. So. Astro is known internally
at Amazon as Vesta and Astro Slash. Vesta has another

(15:41):
purpose that they don't tell you about in that advert.
Running surveillance on customers. Have a listen to this internal
training video for Astro slash VESTA. Don't ask us where
we got this, just have a listen to what they're
saying the donation. Start following that Anne stranger and keep
following under the stranger goes out of the field of you.

(16:05):
As soon as the person goes out of field of you,
it will start investigation. That is, it will go and
check in each scampaigns that is created. This investigation. Unknown
investigation or non person investigation will happen only after reaching
to the first scanpoint. This will not happen immediately. And

(16:28):
regarding the non person investigation, the patrol should start as
soon as it sees the non person in the field
of you, and immediately second later the person leaves from
the field of you, the patrol will start automatically. I mean,
when the investor is following an unknown person, then a

(16:49):
non person is introduced into the field of you, the
patrol or investigation immediately stops. You know, that was a
little bit hard to understand due to the start, but
that's we got it. But basically she is explaining how
Astro can run an investigation patrol. If a stranger quote,
stranger is in the house, and then Astro can hide

(17:11):
that activity from the non users at will if they
enter astros field of vision. So basically running about the
house doing a little investigation on this stranger. Then the
owner walks interview and quickly Astro stops it. I don't
know about you, but along with several other aspects of
Astro that will hear about, that seems quite creepy to me.

(17:40):
To get a better understanding of what Amazon is up
to with their Astro robot, I spoke to Matthew Goalt.
He's a staff reporter at Motherboard and the host of
their cyber podcast. He's also the one that first found
out about the surveillance situation with Astro. So the pitch
for investor or Astro as it's known now is that

(18:01):
it's basically like a tablet on wheels with Alexa software
built in and for a customer gets a cute little
Wally style thing the roll around your house, let you
buy stuff on Amazon, and it integrates into the rest
of the Amazon ecosystem into your home, meaning it can
communicate with ring cameras. Uh, you know, your Echo, your
Alexa and and if you have one an Amazon powered

(18:24):
security system. So the pitch and the way it's described
internally or kind of two different things. Um, the marketing says,
a clever little robot that learns from you and will
help you in your day to day life. So the
internal documentation kind of shows that Astro is a robot
that's designed to slowly move through your home, learn all

(18:45):
of its nooks and crannies, monitor to the behavior of
its inhabitants, and it literally will follow people around the house,
recording what they say and do and attempting to integrate
that data into a customer profile of the home. It
also has facial recognition software that the people working on
the device said doesn't work very well. So when you

(19:08):
buy this thing, you're supposed to get everyone in the
family together, you hunker down in front of it, and
you register your face. Um. This is one of the
things that Astro does is perk up when it meets
someone in the home who isn't supposed to be there.
So if you know, ostensibly if you have an intruder,
it will follow them around, record what they're saying and

(19:30):
doing stot you know, for someone to view later, and
if certain conditions are met, alert the authorities. What those
conditions are aren't exactly clear, but the the the idea
is that if they are stealing something or making certain
kinds of loud noise like say the shattering of glass,
or if or if Astro sees a fire set, it

(19:53):
will then contact the relevant authorities. Now, I know you
might be thinking at this stage, well, that doesn't sound
that bad. Yeah, it's mapping out my whole house, reading
people's faces, etcetera. But if somebody bursts into my house
and I'm not there, this little robot thing is going
to call the police. Well, listen on, because it's not
that simple. And at the end of this you can

(20:14):
decide if you think the negatives outweigh the positives. But
the people we talked to who had worked on this
thing where we're not happy with the device, Um, we
talked to several people. Every single one of them kind
of said the same thing that they thought that this
was terrible. They were horrified by the privacy implications of it,

(20:36):
and that generally just didn't work very well. Astro seems
kind of bad at everything that it does. Um, this
is one of my favorite quotes. Astro is terrible and
will almost certainly throw itself down a flight of stairs
if presented the opportunity, and will note that every single
person we talked to mentioned that stairs were a problem
for Astro does not know how to handle them. Quote

(20:59):
the person detection is unreliable at best, making the in
home security proposition laughable. So drilling down, how does Astro
collect data on its customers? So, Astro is another in
a long line of data gathering operations run by Amazon. Basically,
every interaction anyone has with Amazon, whether through using an

(21:21):
Echo Dot to order cheese Whiz or rewatching X files
for the five time on Prime Video, that becomes a
data point and Amazon's like huge aws stores. Um So,
if you're read a book on good Reads, or you
highlight a passage in a Game of Thrones novel on
your kindle, or you leave a one star review for
dish soap on Amazon, the site learns all of that. Ostensibly,

(21:45):
it uses this data to better manage the customer experience.
You might start seeing books similar to the one you
rated highly, start getting ads for something that was mentioned
in that passage that you highlighted. Uh, and you'll probably
never see dish soap that you rated at one star
ever again, Um, and a lot of people love this.
They love the way that interacting with Amazon and its

(22:06):
systems allows you know, the site to learn about you
as a customer. The argument is that it makes life easier,
and that's kind of the tradeoff, right, You're sacrificing a
little bit of privacy for convenience. But the thing is,
I think a lot of what Amazon does, and a
lot of other people think that what Amazon does h

(22:27):
rises to the level of spying. And I think Astro
is a really good way to kind of taught, like
have that conversation. Um, there's stuff that it does that
just massive, massive, massive privacy concerns. And so if you
think about Astro as like a camera and a recorder
on wheels that is feeding information back to Amazon, Well,

(22:51):
who is looking at that information and why are they
looking at that information? Is there any kind of precedent
set in Amazon as a company that can tell us
about how they're going to use that information going forward?
At this point in the episode, because of what we
spoke about earlier, we know that there is a precedent
and that the people that get hold of this information

(23:11):
Amazon continuously disrespecting people's privacy is likely that the same
thing will happen with Astro um. And this is really
important because I think there's this big misunderstanding of Amazon.
When we start talking about its power and about breaking
it up and about whether or not it's some monopoly,
people are just like, well, it's just a website that
sells stuff that's really not true anymore. It also sells

(23:34):
a lot of surveillance tech, you know, like this little
astro robot. It's runs aws. It's the biggest data form
on the planet. UM. A lot of the Internet is
now filtered or stored on their cloud servers, and that's
a huge single point of failure in Amazon is storing
a lot of audio and video fed to it by
its customers through the cameras and echo dots and little

(23:55):
astros that are it's selling. If that wasn't bad enough,
listen to this extra detail a few Goats tells us
about the ring Comeras we spoke about the stuff of
the episode, Amazon has a lot of deals with various
law enforcement agencies across the country that gives them carte
blanche access to these ring cameras. Um. There's really good

(24:16):
investigations in pieces in Motherboard and then also from the
Electronic Frontier Foundation that have shown that Amazon routinely gives
cops access to these things. Um. One example, in San
Francisco in twenty nineteen, cops were given access to ring
camera footage so they could watch protests. And this is
not something that they go and they check with Hey,

(24:38):
can we uh, can we use your ring camera? See
what the footage is like. No, Amazon just hands it over. UM.
So you're when you're installing one of these things in
your home, you're becoming part of a vast surveillance network
and you don't have any control over where that data goes. Uh.
There's a town in California that partnered with RING to
give away free cameras to anyone who witnessed a neighbor

(25:01):
committing a crime and then promised to testify against them
in court, you know, incentivizing people to rat out their neighbors.
In an incident in Washington State, a RING user posted
footage of someone on their porch. Sheriff later tracked down
the guy and then they got into a confrontation they
killed him. The woman has said repeatedly after the fact

(25:22):
that she regrets posting the footage online, and she feels
that her her sharing the ring recording directly led to
the man's death. UM. And it's one of these things
where it was obviously a guy that was in distress
and in need of like a mental health check um.
And he died because of an interaction with the police
and because someone saw him on a ring camera. Now,

(25:44):
Amazon can't always control who gets access, and it can't
protect you from its own employees. UM. Their devices for spine,
even if ostensibly they're supposed to be used to make
our lives more convenient and keep people safe. And at
the end of the day, it's a camera or recorder
and you don't have control over what's done with the
data once it hits Amazon servers. It's one thing to

(26:06):
have like a closed circuit television system set up in
your home where you are the only one that has
access to the footage. But when you get integrated into
Amazon's services like this, you're you're you're inviting this huge
company to paw through all of your stuff and look
through it all. And you know, here we have Astro,

(26:29):
this little device that that moves around your house and
records even more information. So Amazon has been caught spying
on its customers several times. How is the spying via
Astro unique? I would say the spying the astro is
unique because it's ambulatory. This thing moves around your house.
It has your faces, It has the faces of you

(26:51):
and everyone in your home stored in side of it,
and it's making judgment calls about who should and shouldn't
be there. And the people who have worked on this
thing tell us it's not good at making those judgment calls. UM.
The facial recognition software is built on shaky foundation UM,
and trying to integrate into a thousand dollar a little
robot that's going to move around your house is asking

(27:12):
for a disaster. UM. You know, it's one thing to
have the ring camera pointed outside your front door, or
an Alexa that listens to everything inside your home. It's
quite another to have a little device that moves around,
recording audio and video and creating a floor plan in
its memory. So this is another one of the really
interesting unique features UM of Astro that has kind of

(27:37):
talked about more in the design documents than it is
in the marketing. UM. It learns your floor plan, it
moves around your home, It finds all the nukes and crannies.
It's builds a rendering of your house in its memory. Uh.
It also monitors the foot traffic of everyone in the

(27:57):
house and learns what the hotspots are. According to the
design documents we looked at, astro nos say that at
three fifteen, the kids get home from school and the
entrance to the house becomes a traffic hot spot, so
it knows that it should avoid that. Um, it's monitoring,
it's moving around the house except when it's charging, recording

(28:19):
audio and video. Um, it's moving around on its own
and making explicit maps of your residence. And we already
know that hackers have been able to get access to
Amazon servers before. Just like this is all a recipe
for disaster, recipe for disaster. So after all that, it's
up to you to decide. Is Amazon spying on us? Personally?

(28:45):
I think yes, but your thoughts are yours. The Looking
through all of this, though, it feels to me that
Amazon is basically tricking us, consciously or unconsciously into consuming
more and more trendy gadgets that actually all up as
surveillance systems. Access is given to the police at the
drop of a hat without your permission. Access has been

(29:07):
stolen quite easily by hackers, and access has been given
willingly to employees working at Amazon's tech security divisions. If
you're using these products, all of the data, video, images,
and voice recordings that they collect all stored in Amazon's
Big Cloud. Up they hearing all of this, does that
make you feel safe? In the next episode of Megacorp,

(29:32):
will be looking into Amazon's connections to intelligence agencies across
the world, including the CIA and m I six. Megacorp
is made by my production company H eleven for Cool
Zone Media. It's written, researched, and produced by myself, Jake Hanrahan.

(29:54):
It was also produced by Sophie Lichtman. Music is by
Some Black, graphics by Adam Doyle and sound engineering by
Splicing Block. If you want to get in touch, follow
me on social media at Jake Underscore Hanrahan. That's h
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