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Here’s what type of data Amazon devices are collecting about you

The Washington Post Technology Columnist Geoffrey Fowler joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss Amazon’s digital surveillance network and what type of data Amazon is collecting about consumers.

Video Transcript

- All right. Well, while you might soon be able to be unboxing some of these new shiny Amazon devices, the online retail giant's slew of smart home devices are collecting a treasure trove of data from its millions of customers. So what does Amazon know about you? And what's it doing with that information? Well, joining us now to discuss this is "Washington Post" technology columnist Geoff Fowler. Good to have you on the show. Obviously, even when we were looking at the data, 12% of the purchases made there for Amazon Prime on these smart devices. I've got a Ring. I've got an Echo. What information do these devices collect for Amazon?

GEOFF FOWLER: Well, are you ready to get a little creeped out? Because I spent the last couple of weeks just trying to tally it all up. I'm a tech columnist. And I have many of these products in my own home or I've used them over the years. So I just tried to add it all up. And I made a little list to share with you. Just the top level here is Amazon-- if you get their dream home, if you buy all their gadgets, they'll gather data about you when you're talking, when you're sleeping, when you walk by them, when you show your face, when you cough, when you snore, when you come home or leave home, when you turn on the lights, when you turn up the heat, when you play music, when you watch TV.

I mean, I could keep going and going and going with this list. The point is Amazon has pushed much further than any other big tech company not only to make devices for the smart home, but also to make sure that they're collecting data out of them that they can use for their own purposes.

- I have to point out Jeff Bezos happens to own the "Washington Post." So it's listening to you right now, maybe the boss is. After knowing all this, do you still have an Amazon smart device plugged in your home? And what was the most concerning form of data that it is recording?

GEOFF FOWLER: Yeah. So I think the one that is the most popular in America is the Echo Speaker. It's, in fact, one of the best-selling speakers of all time. I do have some in my house. I'm a little bit unusual because I'm the tech guy for the "Washington Post." So my job is to have all of the things. So I also have the Apple one and I have the Google one. In terms of what is the most disturbing kind of information, for me, it's the stuff where Amazon just doesn't even give you a choice for them to collect all this data and to keep it.

For example, their ring doorbells and security cameras, they used to tell people that, oh, you're totally in control of what happens with that data. But we've now learned that there are about a dozen cases so far this year where Amazon has just hand it over that footage to police without the permission of their owners. So I think stuff like that is really the areas where Americans are going to get kind of upset here.

- So, Jeff, two things. Is this something that people can opt out of if they're not comfortable with that? And also, from what I understand, Amazon doesn't sell the data. So then what are they actually doing with it?

GEOFF FOWLER: Yeah. So two really good points. This is sort of what Amazon always likes to say. It's actually lines that they borrowed from Facebook before. Facebook also doesn't sell our data, yet they seem to have found plenty of use for it. And Facebook also offers you lots of little opt-out buttons. The truth is the defaults matter. And the defaults for many of Amazon's services just collect a lot more data. They just know that you're not going to bother to go in and change the setting that tells them not to keep recordings of stuff that goes on in your house, for example.

So, yes, you can do it. And, in fact, we made a guide at the "Washington Post" as our privacy reset guide where we'll walk you through a bunch of the settings you can adjust for Amazon to get them to collect less data. But most people really just aren't going to take the time. And that's kind of the problem.

- And now they've got this $140 Halo Rise, which tracks your breathing during your sleep. God knows what else. To what end? What do you think Amazon is trying to accomplish here?

GEOFF FOWLER: Amazon is-- it understands that data is power. It's the oil of our economy. And with all of this data about our lives, they can do a lot of stuff. I mean, many of their more recent acquisitions, in fact, and products have involved our bodies. They're trying to buy One Medical. They bought PillPack, the pharmacy company.

Products like the Halo, and they also have a Halo Tracker, are gathering data about their body. One of their visions is to become kind of the eye doctor and to be able to do that, to be able to provide useful information to people, they just need to know a lot about our bodies. So we are giving it to them. And in some cases, we're paying them to let them gather data about us that they can then analyze and try to use and sell back to us later.

- Makes me feel even worse. We've talked about Echo and Ring. But even things like like smart blinds. For people who are sort of drawing comparisons with things like Skynet and sort of wondering where does this go from here, where does this-- in terms of AI and robotics. You've got your Roomba being now nosy as it's vacuuming your house. How should consumers take this? What should they take away from this report?

GEOFF FOWLER: Yeah. I think a couple of things. First of all, everybody's going to have to make their own decisions about what they're comfortable with a company knowing about them, and also what they're comfortable with one of the largest corporations in human history knowing about them. Amazon should get some pressure back from us for those of us who think that it's collecting too much and storing too much. And they should be hearing this. So I hope they're listening to our conversation here today because I think a lot of their customers feel this way.

The other thing is they don't have to design their products this way. We're often kind of given false choices as tech consumers that, well, either they're going to take all our data or we won't get to live in the future. And it's just not true. They don't have to design their products. And in fact, some of their competitors have not. If you look at the way that Apple, for example, handles a lot of smart home devices and data, they work very hard to make sure that they're not storing it, that they're not keeping it. So I think it's really just about us as consumers pushing back and saying, hey, we have some rights here too, Amazon.

- Of course, everybody wants your data, including Meta, who rolled out this new VR headset. $1,500. You got to try this thing out. Your thoughts on it. And your thoughts on the metaverse, where we are right now.

GEOFF FOWLER: Yeah. Well, since we were just talking about privacy, I'll tell you the one eyebrow-raising thing about this new headset is that it contains a whole bunch of cameras now on the inside that are looking at your eyes, your eyebrows, your cheeks, your mouth, you name it. And it's kind of a lot of information to know about our bodies. And I was really not satisfied with Meta's answer about how they were going to keep that data private.

So they say they're going to process it on the device. But they're still letting apps have access to it. So the question is, are we in a near future where, let's say, you're watching Netflix and Netflix could gather data about when you laugh at certain points in the show or when you're crying because that's the kind of thing that this technology would enable.

On the metaverse more broadly, it's been seven years since the first Facebook Oculus product came out, the Rift. I reviewed that at the time. And when I was sitting down looking through the six demos that Meta gave me of the new Quest Pro, I was kind of struck by we haven't really gotten very far. I think the term I used in my review for the post was it's the meh-taverse. It just doesn't really push the boundary that far yet. It's never felt further away, the idea that the metaverse is a place where lots of us in our normal everyday lives and our jobs and being creative are going to use this thing. It feels like they've really got a long ways to go.

- A long, long way to go. "Washington Post" tech columnist Geoff Fowler. Great to have you, man. I appreciate it.

GEOFF FOWLER: You bet.