Amazon this week walked into the health gadget market with a $100 fitness wearable and a $4 per month subscription service. Amazon Halo stands out not for the lack of a screen, but rather its two “innovative” features: Body and Tone. The former uses computer vision, machine learning, and “a suite of algorithms that can generate your personalized 3D body model, BFP, and body model slider, a visual of how your body could change as you gain or lose body fat.” The latter uses machine learning to “analyze the positivity and energy of your voice — positivity is measured by how happy or sad you sound, and energy is how excited or tired you sound.”
Did Amazon learn nothing from the criticisms of its inaccurate facial recognition tech Rekognition? Actually, I think it learned a lot. This time, it’s not selling a problematic AI product to law enforcement (for now). Instead, it’s falling back on its tried and true strategy of going straight to the source: consumers.
It was impressive enough that Amazon single-handedly created the voice-activated smart speaker category with a surprise November 2014 announcement, ultimately getting the Echo into millions of homes. But the Echo is limited. Most variants don’t have a camera, and all versions are stationary. This is a tough problem, especially given that consumers have (so far) shunned cameras in wearables (see Google Glass). Amazon’s solution? Use your existing smartphone to upload pictures of yourself in your underwear and buy a cheap band to record what you say wherever you are. In other words, surveillance capitalism under the guise of fitness.
Amazon’s take on fitness
Alexa, am I healthy?
I’ve long argued that the future of wearables is proactive health care. I’m extremely bullish on the idea of a device that can give you food recommendations, rest reminders, and exercise suggestions personalized specifically to what you need based on quantitative data measured from your body.
But this is not that. This is a step in the wrong direction. The same week that Fitbit announced Sense, which has more sensors than any other Fitbit device in an attempt to empower you with actionable health data, Amazon has unveiled the inherently flawed Halo.
While Fitbit backs up its health data with encouragement to work with health professionals, the only mentions of “doctor” in Amazon’s announcement is with respect to how Halo can replace them. Furthermore, Amazon offers no scientific evidence that applying AI to pictures and your voice can produce an “accurate body fat percentage” and “a more complete view of health and wellness.”
Never mind that Amazon does not cite any studies showing AI can determine your health from pictures and sound. Just like with Rekognition, it will take years for those to be conducted independently, if they ever show up at all. The scientific method takes time — time that Amazon can better spend giving users questionable insights and collecting valuable personal data.
Amazon’s take on privacy
Alexa, please tell Halo to stop recording everyone I talk to and everything in my vicinity.
Amazon is well aware of Halo’s potential privacy problems. The company knows that despite vowing not to use Fitbit data to target ads, Google’s $2.1 billion acquisition is facing a full EU antitrust probe.
Amazon saw a potential data collection backlash coming from miles away. While the shortest section in the Halo press release is about privacy, it does link to a separate Amazon Halo Privacy page that addresses some key concerns right off the bat. I took the liberty of adding some notes:
- You can easily download and delete your Halo health data at any time directly from the Settings section of the app. Boom. Will Amazon delete Halo health data if I stop using the device or paying my subscription?
- Data is always encrypted in transit (“in transit” is when it moves between your phone and your band, or between your phone and the cloud). So it’s not always encrypted?
- We only move data when absolutely necessary, and we process it as close to the source as possible. For example, Tone speech samples are processed right on your phone and then automatically deleted — they never go to the cloud, and no one ever hears them. But the resulting Tone voice profile is fair game?
- Your body scan images are processed in the cloud and automatically deleted. After that, your 3D body model and scan images only live on your phone unless you have explicitly opted in to cloud backup. All that to say, only you ever see them (unless you choose to show them off yourself). How can I verify that my underwear pictures were deleted from your servers?
That’s just the “quick summary” at the top of the page. Amazon does a decent job of explaining the things it wants to explain. It’s what’s missing on the page that is really telling. My biggest question: Why doesn’t Amazon promise not to sell my Halo data, or sell against my Halo data?
Amazon’s take on ads
Alexa, please tell Amazon to stop shipping me calming teas and dumbbells.
And therein lies the whole point of this exercise, no pun intended. We covered the surveillance part, so now let’s talk about the capitalism part. Amazon knows that health care is massively lucrative, especially in the fundamentally broken U.S. market. But the long-term revenue bet here isn’t in the $100 per device nor the $48 annual fee. It’s in ads.
In addition to dominating retail and cloud, Amazon has a small but steadily growing ads business. In Q2 2020, Amazon’s “other” revenue category that mainly covers its advertising business was up 41% to $4.22 billion.
Amazon is the only company currently able to challenge the Google-Facebook duopoly in digital ads. Indeed, in June, eMarketer replaced that common description of the digital ad market with “the Google-Facebook-Amazon triopoly.”
In addition to knowing your purchase history, plus what you browse and search for, Amazon wouldn’t mind tracking your health. The company could easily sell you even more stuff if it thought it knew how your body was doing and how you were feeling. Letting advertisers target you with that data, à la Facebook and Google, couldn’t hurt.
For Amazon, fitness wearable = surveillance + capitalism.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.
Update on August 31: Amazon provided the following statement.
Privacy is foundational to how we designed and built Amazon Halo, and suggesting it is intended for surveillance is completely false. Amazon Halo health data is not used for marketing, product recommendations, or advertising. We do not sell customers’ Amazon Halo health data. Customers can delete all Amazon Halo health data associated with their profile at any time from the Halo settings. Once a customer deletes their data in Amazon Halo, they’re automatically logged-out of the app and cannot log back in with their profile until all of the health data associated with the profile has been deleted. All Amazon Halo data is encrypted in transit, including going to/from the cloud or between your band and the Amazon Halo app on your phone. Health data is encrypted while being stored in the secure Amazon cloud. Tone and Body data is stored securely on your phone, including using available full disc encryption and other protections provided by your phone manufacturer, before being automatically deleted after processing. If you choose to create a voice profile and enroll in Tone, your voice profile will be stored in the app on your phone. It never goes to the cloud and no one ever hears it. You can delete the profile at any time by going to Settings > Profile > Voice ID > Delete Your Voice ID in the Amazon Halo app. We published an FAQ and whitepaper for customers who’d like to learn even more about Amazon Halo privacy features.
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