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A crotch-level Alexa camera doesn’t sound like a great idea

My home is awash in cameras. Some are in my pocket. Others are on counters, and still more are tucked away into strategic corners. Where I do not have — nor want — a camera of any sort, is at waist-level, aimed at whatever else may live at that altitude.

But that is what is precisely (albeit vaguely) referred to in a new Bloomberg report by perennial Apple (and Amazon) soothsayer Mark Gurman and Pria Anand, just days ahead of Amazon’s annual hardware event, where it might well drop a dozen or two new products on us (that isn’t an overstatement — Amazon is known for going ridiculously long and deep with these events).

Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that a number of pre-Apple event rumors turned out to either not be true — or at least not be true yet, let us turn our attention to the soundbar section of the Bloomberg report, which reads much like an anonymous leak of code names and vague product descriptions more than it does a foretelling of what’s to come on September 28.

From Bloomberg:

Amazon has also eyed a soundbar for TVs — a long, horizontal device for beaming sound across the room. The company had originally planned to release it in 2021, but it’s now unlikely to meet that shipping timeline. Amazon, however, often announces new products months ahead of their release.

There are already several third-party soundbars with Alexa support, but Amazon sees room for its own spin on the concept. Amazon has been working on a version with a front-facing camera. The product, code-named Harmony, also would let customers take video calls from their TVs — similar to Facebook Inc.’s Portal product — according to internal documents. Amazon announced its own line of low-cost TVs earlier this month.

It’s true that there already are a number of soundbars available with Amazon Fire TV OS baked in. The gist is that you plug the soundbar into your TV, just like you would an Amazon Fire TV Stick, and you then get improved audio in addition to the smarter operating system.

The really important thing here is the supposed inclusion of a front-facing camera. (Not that any other direction would make sense, of course.) We’ll assume that most of us place a soundbar beneath the television, whether it’s sitting on an entertainment center, or mounted on the wall. Depending on your height, that’s almost certainly going to put said soundbar somewhere in the strike zone (that’s from the knees to the nips, basically).

Never mind the sort of icky feeling I tend to get in general when talking about Amazon getting a good look at things. Some of that is tin-foil hattery, and some of that is a real concern about powerful companies running machine learning on whatever it can see in my living room.

But some of that is just squeamishness at the idea of a camera being pointed at my couch, tucked into a soundbar in what I’d presume to be a pretty inconspicuous manner. That’s different than the camera on my phone. That’s different than the camera on the Nest Home Max that’s on my kitchen counter. That’s different than the Nest security cameras that are in plain sight in their various strategic corners.

It’s also the case that none of this is set in stone. “Working on a version” is a far cry from “just announced,” and anonymously sourced rumor posts and $5.74 will get you a cup of coffee. So it’s perhaps a bit early to prep the pitchforks for ol’ Amazon just yet.

But it’s never too early to be worried about our privacy.

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Phil Nickinson
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