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Amazon will use radar so Alexa can see while you sleep

At first glance, this is one of the things that seems relatively benign: Amazon received federal approval the other day to develop a device to track your sleep patterns.

When you look closer, however, questions arise.

Will the device’s radar sensors become an even more intrusive threat to our privacy than the microphones and cameras that Amazon, Apple and Google already have in millions of homes?

And what does it really mean to have a radar wave next to your bed? Is it safe?

First the good news. Every radar technology expert I consulted drew off the potential risk of being bathed all night in low-level electromagnetic radiation.

“Although you may spend a lot of time next to this thing while sleeping, you will gain much more harmful exposure by working outdoors during a similar period,”

; said Paul Siqueira, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

As for radiation, he said to me, “Compare this to something like a light bulb.”

Dustin Schroeder, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford University who uses radar to study the planet, said the technology Amazon proposed is not that different from signals emitted by cell phones and other wireless devices.

“Since I have these things in my room,” he said, “I want to feel just as comfortable, from a security standpoint, with one of these radar systems.”

When it comes to privacy, however, it is a different matter.

I briefly referred to Amazon’s new technology in Tuesday’s column on how the pandemic had resulted in what an expert called “an epidemic of sleep deprivation.”

A recent study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that more than half of all Americans have had trouble sleeping since COVID-19 arrived.

Sleep monitoring is a growth industry for Silicon Valley. It’s a selling point for wearables like the Apple Watch and Fitbit. Now such systems are taking root in the home.

In March, Google unveiled the latest version of the Nest Hub smart display. It contains what the company calls Soli sensors, which are very similar to what Amazon is now apparently planning to put in Alexa-powered gadgets.

But because Amazon is the much more aggressive retailer, and because it dominates the market for smart speakers and monitors, Amazon’s interest in radar – powered devices represents the bigger shot over the Americans’ privacy arc.

“Surveillance as a service has come to sleep technology, and it’s as scary as Silicon Valley is,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, a law professor at American University who focuses on privacy issues.

“The privacy of your bedroom is a place that deserves the utmost protection from outside forces, especially from private companies without much regulation or supervision,” he told me. “Businesses that want to make money on sleep habits signal that there is nothing out of their reach.”

In its request for approval from the Federal Communications Commission, Amazon acknowledged that radar technology would “operate at higher power levels than allowed today.” It would be “used for sleep tracking and could help improve consumer awareness and management of sleep hygiene.”

The company described the radar sensors as “capturing motion in a three-dimensional space.” This suggests that the new device will project an electromagnetic bubble over users, instead of logging on every throw and turn of a restless night’s sleep, as laptops now do.

It will then monitor all movement in that bubble through the night “with a higher degree of resolution and positional precision than would otherwise be possible”, according to the FCC application.

Needless to say, unless you turn it off, it will keep track of – and share with Amazon – everything that happens in the bubble, sleep-related or, ahem, otherwise.

“Can sleep tracking data reveal how many people are in bed?” wondered Vitaly Shmatikov, professor of computer science at Cornell University.

“Imagine sleep tracking data combined with Fitbit data combined with location data from people’s cell phones,” he told me. “The information collected by each device may appear harmless, but the accumulation and aggregation of data streams from multiple trackers may reveal intimate details of users’ lives.”

Gaia Bernstein, director of the Institute for Privacy Protection at Seton Hall University School of Law, said radar devices that see you while you sleep were “particularly worrying” because “federal health care laws do not regulate companies like Amazon.”

“Amazon will have access to sensitive health information about us that it can use freely,” she warned.

Sleep data would obviously be very valuable for a company that runs an online pharmacy and sells pillows and bedding, as Amazon does.

I asked the company for details on how it planned to use the radar technology and what it would do with the data. Nobody answered.

While being on the radar track during sleep is one thing, perhaps the more disturbing aspect of all this is the introduction of a new technology in the home that allows Big Tech to follow every move.

Theoretically, radar-equipped smart devices will be able to “see” all activity in a room and possibly even help to identify those present.

“Technology will be used to observe many people through many devices, most of whom have no idea they are being watched,” predicted Joshua Fairfield, a law professor at Washington and Lee University who focuses on privacy.

“Beyond the absolute certainty that this technology will be used to observe people who do not know or agree to be observed,” he told me, “it erodes the feeling of not being monitored. Our houses are already smallest private place we live our lives. ”

Fairfield added: “This type of innovation is the worst on the Internet – unnecessary except for advertisers and data capitalists, and with the added effect of moving surveillance to the center of the most vulnerable spaces and times.”

In short, radar sleep trackers are unlikely to give you cancer or cause other health problems. But they represent a significant step forward in Big Tech’s ongoing work to spy on you throughout the day (and apparently at night).

I asked a simple question about Amazon’s recent progress to the experts I contacted: Smart or scary?

The consensus answer: Both.

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