Imagine for a moment the near future that Amazon dreams of.
Every morning you are gently awakened by Amazon Halo Rise. From its perch on your bedside table, the round device spent the night monitoring your body movements, the light in your room, and the temperature and humidity of the space. At the optimal time in your sleep cycle, as calculated by a proprietary algorithm, the light from the device gradually brightens to mimic the natural warm hue of the sunrise. Your Amazon Echo, plugged in somewhere nearby, automatically starts playing your favorite music as part of your wake-up routine. You ask the device about today’s weather; it tells you to expect rain. Then it notifies you that your next “Subscribe & Save” shipment of Amazon Elements Super Omega-3 capsules is on the way. On the way to the bathroom, a notification pops up on your phone from Amazon’s Neighbors app, which contains video footage from Amazon Ring cameras in the area: Someone knocked over trash cans, leaving yards of the community in ruins. (Maybe it’s just raccoons.)
Standing in front of the sink, you glance at the Amazon Halo app, which is connected to your Amazon Halo fitness tracker. You feel bad, which is probably why the cellphone analyzes your tone of voice as “low energy” and “low positivity”. Your sleep score is dismal. After your morning rinse, you hear the Amazon Astro robot chasing your dog, Fred, down the hall; you see on Astro’s video feed Fred chomping on your Amazon Essentials sports sneaker. Your Ring doorbell rings. The pills have arrived.
It would be a little flippant – and more than a little cliché – to call this some kind of technological dystopia. Really, dystopia would not be exact, exactly: dystopian fiction is usually speculative, while all of these elements and services are real. In late September, Amazon announced a suite of technology products in its move toward “ambient intelligence,” which Amazon hardware chief Dave Limp describe as technology and devices that creep into the background but are “always there”, collecting information and taking action against it.
This intense devotion to tracking and quantifying all aspects of our waking and non-waking hours is nothing new – see the Apple Watch, the Fitbit, wholesale social media and the smartphone in your pocket – but Amazon has been exceptionally explicit about its plans. The Everything Store is becoming an Everything Tracker, collecting and mining large amounts of personal data related to entertainment, fitness, health and, it says, security. It is a monitoring that millions of customers opt for.
I won’t be one of them. Growing up in Detroit under the specter of the STRESS Police Unit – an acronym for “Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets” – armed me with a very specific perspective on surveillance and how it is deployed against communities. black. One of the unit’s main tactics was the deployment of surveillance in “high crime” areas of the city. In two and a half years of operation in the 1970s, the unit killed 22 people, including 21 blacks. Decades later, Detroit, with its Greenlight Project network of cameras and a renewed commitment to ShotSpotter Microphones, which claim to detect gunshots and help police respond without a 911 call, continue to be one of the blackest and most policed cities in America. My work focuses on how surveillance mechanisms are deployed disproportionately against black people; think falsely incriminating facial recognition black menor the Los Angeles Police Department requesting Black Lives Matter Ring-doorbell footage protests.
The amenities promised by Amazon’s product suite may seem divorced from this context: I’m here to tell you that they are not. These “smart” devices all fall under what digital studies researcher David Golumbia and I call “luxury remote monitoring“- that is, surveillance that people pay for and whose tracking, monitoring, and quantification features are perceived by the user as benefits. These gadgets are analogous to the surveillance technologies deployed in Detroit and in many other cities across the country in that they are best understood as control mechanisms: they collect data, which is then used to influence behavior. Stripped of their luster, these devices resemble ankle monitors and surveillance apps such as SmartLINK that are imposed on people on parole or immigrants awaiting hearings, such as author and activist James Kilgore writing“The ankle monitor – which for nearly two decades was simply an analog device that notified authorities if the wearer was home – has now evolved into a sophisticated surveillance tool through the use of GPS capability, biometric measurements , cameras and audio recording.”
The functions described by Kilgore mirror those offered by wearable devices and other trackers that many people are happy to spend hundreds of dollars on. Gadgets such as Fitbits, Apple Watches and Amazon Halo are increasingly touted for their ability to collect data that helps you control and modulate your behavior, whether it’s tracking your steps, watching your breathing or analyze the tone of your voice. . The control imposed from outside the formerly incarcerated becomes the self-imposed control of the individual.
Amazon and its subsidiary Ring deny claims that their devices enable harmful surveillance and deepen racial inequality. “Ring’s mission is to make neighborhoods safer, and that means for everyone, not just certain communities,” Amazon Ring spokeswoman Emma Daniels said in response to a request for comment. “We take these topics seriously, which is why Ring has conducted independent audits with credible third-party organizations such as the NYU School of Law to ensure the products and services we build promote fairness, transparency, and accountability. When it comes to Halo, no one sees your personally identifiable Halo health data without your permission, and Halo Band and Halo View don’t have GPS and can’t be used to track individuals.
Here it is useful to remember that contexts change very quickly when technology is involved. Ring approached the NYU School of Law in 2020 to audit its products, specifically their privacy and policing impacts. This report was released in December 2021 and promised to produce greater “transparency” when it comes to the company’s partnerships with law enforcement. Last July, just seven months later, Senator Edward Markey released a letter saying the company had given doorbell footage to police without owners’ consent 11 times this year alone. (Amazon did not deny this in a statement to Politicsbut he stressed that he does not give “anyone unlimited access to customer data or video”.)
And remember, GPS tracking isn’t the only form of surveillance. Health monitoring and smart home devices all play a role. Consumers may believe they have nothing to fear (or hide) from these luxury surveillance devices, or that adopting this technology could only benefit them. But these very devices are now being exploited against people by their employers, the governmenttheir neighbors, stalkersand domestic abusers. To buy in these ecosystems is to tacitly bear the damage associated with them.
Behind all of this is the normalization of surveillance that systematically targets marginalized communities. The difference between a smartwatch and an ankle monitor is, in many ways, a matter of context: who wears one for an alleged enhancement, and who wears one because state power is wielded against them? Returning to Detroit, surveillance cameras, facial recognition and microphones are said to be in place to help residents, although there are little evidence that these technologies reduce crime. Meanwhile, the widespread adoption of surveillance technologies, even those that offer supposed benefits, creates an environment where even more monitoring is deemed acceptable. After all, there are already cameras and microphones everywhere.
The luxury surveillance market is huge and diverse – it’s not just Amazon, of course. But Amazon is the market leader in key categories, and its language and product ads paint a clear picture. (Also note that Apple and Google have yet to announce an airborne security drone that patrols your hallways, like Amazon did.)
Below its press releases, Amazon reminds us that it is guided by four principles, the first of which is “customer obsession rather than competitor focus”. It would be wise to remember that this obsession takes the form of frantic data collection. What does it mean when his life becomes completely readable to tech companies? Taken as a whole, Amazon’s suite of consumer products threatens to turn every home into a fun mirror version of a fulfillment center. Ultimately, we can be managed as consumers the same way the company currently manages its employees, the only difference being that customers will pay for this privilege.