On Thursday, Amazon announced a new program called Alexa for Residential that would make it cheaper for apartment complexes to integrate Alexa and Amazon devices into their rental units. This should come as no surprise, especially considering that the pandemic has allowed Amazon to grow even more entrenched in our daily lives.
Before you move in, a smart speaker will be installed that will need no set-up from you—it can even give you a tour before you move in and answer questions about the rental unit. According to The Verge, Amazon insists property managers won't access any tenant data and all voice recordings will be deleted daily, all in the name of offering "custom voice experiences that go beyond the walls of their apartments."
Since its introduction in late 2014, Amazon has increasingly integrated Alexa into its vast empire and beyond. In 2019, 100 million devices were sold with Alexa integration, and many of them weren’t even Amazon devices. Later that year, a New Yorker feature on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his company reported that "fifty million homes" had an Amazon Echo device—the most popular voice-activated speaker that carried Alexa.
Amazon has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get an Echo or equivalent Alexa-compatible device into as many homes as possible, at a loss according to one analysis, for good reason. Consumers not only spend “billions of dollars” through Alexa, but increasingly integrate it into their lives as time goes on. And it's through this mass adoption of Alexa devices that consumers (and the army of human beings Amazon hires to listen to consumers) can collectively train Amazon’s voice recognition system, which is then monetized through Amazon’s primary source of profits: Amazon Web Services.
For years, Amazon’s strategy has been loss-leading across every part of its empire to not only undermine competitors, but to clear land for AWS' harvest. Silently powering the internet, AWS has provided 67 percent of Amazon’s profits over the last fiscal year ($11.3 billion on over $48 billion in AWS revenue from Q2 2019 to Q2 2020 compared with $5.6 billion on $282 in revenue for Amazon.com revenue).
Alexa is a core part of juicy contracts Amazon is chasing and as the public improves voice recognition, the private sector is offered increasingly more attractive AWS products (or Alexa business services) that either rely on voice recognition or use Alexa as a backbone to make their own smart devices. An even better Alexa means an even better position to negotiate contracts with the UK’s National Health Service and the U.S. healthcare industry, for example. And all of this only further empowers the AWS cash cow, currently busy aggressively pursuing contracts with Big Oil and creating a carbon cloud computing system whose profitability will rival that of the war cloud computing system Amazon hoped to build for the Pentagon.
“Smart tech” or smart apartments are a cute way to think of this, but they distract us from what’s going on. Amazon Alexa actually is, as Jathan Sadowski puts it in his book Too Smart, above all else “an immensely complex system of data flows, cloud servers, algorithmic analysis, communication protocols, user interfaces, human labor, rare earth metals.” When the EU reviewed Google's purchase of Fitbit, the primary concern was not that hackers would get the data—although the EU has raised data privacy concerns about Alexa before—but that Google would use extracted data to further entrench its digital advertising monopoly.
While it’s natural to be chiefly concerned about privacy when your apartment comes with an Amazon microphone pre-installed, we should also be critical about where the data extracted from us ends up. Data extraction is not an innocent process, and it’s almost always used to increase profits or preserve market dominance. When insurance companies extract data, they do it to maximize premiums and minimize claims. When employers do it, they surveil workers in their private lives and anticipate labor organizing. And in general, when corporations provide their extracted data as a good or service, it’s to accelerate privatization to their own benefit.
Given how Alexa is deployed, how data extraction works, and Amazon’s own adventures into healthcare, insurance technology, workplace surveillance, and general monopolistic activities, many tenants are likely to be skeptical of Alexa for Residents.
On the bright side, slapping a “smart home” premium onto the monthly rent may let your landlord reverse plunging rents caused by the widespread adoption of remote work and a looming eviction crisis. See, everyone (but you) wins.
Amazon did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.