A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jul 17, 2021

Why Amazon Wants To Monitor People's Sleep

Another data-driven privacy violation? Sure. What could go wrong? JL 

Shoshana Wodinsky reports in Gizmodo:

The Federal Communications Commission gave the e-commerce giant clearance to create bedside radar devices meant to track how we toss and turn at night. It’s about ad dollars. Adding sleep-tracking to its tech means that Amazon is one step closer to offering all the same bells and whistles you’d get from the two undisputed champs of the health-monitoring world: Apple and Google. But extrapolating someone’s sleep quality from their general movements is controversial in the sleep research community. Data pulled by nearby radars can be inconsistent—or completely wrong

The Federal Communications Commission gave the e-commerce giant clearance to create bedside radar devices meant to track how we toss and turn at night. And while Amazon’s putting the best face possible on the innovation, it’s still all about those ad dollars.

Bloomberg was first to notice the agency had quietly filed a memo that authorized the ecommerce giant to develop and deploy an “unlicensed radar device” meant to track any nearby movement. This was in response to an initial request that Amazon filed with the agency nearly three weeks ago, where the company described its vision for “Radar Sensors”. These devices, Amazon said, would fire high-frequency radio waves to map out movements from anyone nearby.

And because the FCC is the federal body responsible for policing the airwaves, Amazon was legally obligated to get their go-ahead before they began marketing this yet-to-be-licensed radar device.

“By capturing motion in a three-dimensional space, a Radar Sensor can capture data in a manner that enables touchless device control,” Amazon wrote. “As a result, users can engage with a device and control its features through simple gestures and movements.”

This kind of touchless device control, Amazon went on to explain, could be a godsend for disabled or elderly customers who can’t use the company’s bevy of voice-powered assistants because they’re unable to speak. And Amazon’s absolutely right. Despite the ever-growing list of privacy and security concerns packaged with Echos and Alexas, we’ve already seen that these devices can be life-changing for people who are blind or wheelchair-bound. Amazon’s done its best to make these devices just as accessible for folks that are deaf or speech impaired, but there’s only so much you can do when these tools are based on voice.

Thanks to this grant, Amazon has free rein to roll out a new version of the Echo that will let you set your alarms or turn off your TV using a nod or a hand wave or—maybe! hopefully!—sign language. It’s an objectively awesome idea! Less awesome was the other reason Amazon wanted this grant: contactless sleep tracking.

“These devices would enable users to estimate sleep quality based on movement patterns,” Amazon wrote in the initial filing. “The use of Radar Sensors in sleep tracking could improve awareness and management of sleep hygiene, which in turn could produce significant health benefits for many Americans.”

Amazon’s pitch sounds nearly identical to those from the countless sleepy startups with names like Beddit or SleepScore that traffic in the realm of “nearables.” As you can probably guess from the name, these are the sorts of sleep trackers that sit on your bedside table or your pillow while you’re sleeping (instead of on your wrist) and monitor your mid-sleep movements to see how ~restful~ your rest actually was. It makes sense in theory, but extrapolating someone’s sleep quality from their general movements is super controversial among die-hards in the sleep research community. Critics will point out that data pulled by nearby radars can be inconsistent—or completely wrong in some cases—and those working in the field will openly agree that the sleep-tech industry needs to standardize its scoring systems.

In other words, the “significant health benefits” that Amazon promised the FCC when juicing its sleep-tracking radar tech might have been a bit of an exaggeration.

Amazon, on the other hand, gets some very real benefits out of this deal. Adding sleep-tracking to its tech means that Amazon is one step closer to offering all the same bells and whistles you’d get from the two undisputed champs of the health-monitoring world: Apple and Google. Last summer, Amazon took an even bigger step when it introduced the Halo band, a wearable wristband meant to go toe-to-toe with the Apple Watch, or the Google-owned Fitbit. (It didn’t. At all.)Amazon’s original FCC filings describing the sleep-tracking tech are predictably fuzzy on the details, and the company hasn’t yet responded to our request for comment. But because the data pulled from these sorts of devices tend to fall into a weird legally gray area, and because Amazon is... Amazon, it’s worth assuming your sleeping habits will be turned into ad-targeting fodder soon enough.

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