Is Amazon’s Halo, hallowed enough to be trusted?

By Raymond E. Cherian

Amazon just announced a new product in the market.[1] It has nothing to do with online shopping, groceries, streaming service, or Alexa.[2] Instead, it is a product that announces Amazon’s ambitious entry into the world of wearables for health and fitness that is dominated by Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin.[3] Amazon’s Halo is an all-encompassing service that uses a smartphone and a wearable to keep track of your health and wellness.[4] With the help of a suite of AI-powered health features, the Halo app combined with the wearable, provides insights into overall wellness.[5] Unlike other fitness wearables, the Halo band is screen-less.[6] The band uses multiple sensors to provide information necessary to drive those useful insights.[7]

Along with the attractive pricing, one of the key differentiating factors is Halo’s two innovative but potentially troubling ideas called Body and Tone.[8] The former uses your smartphone camera to capture 3D scans of your body.[9] The latter listens to your tone throughout the day using the Halo band’s microphone.[10] These two features do raise many privacy issues for users.[11]

The tech gaint promotes Body feature by claiming that body fat is a much better predictor of health than body weight.[12] The process of measuring body fat using Amazon’s 3D scan of your body is claimed to be more accurate than other BMI measuring devices.[13] The app requires you to take very personal pictures of yourself regularly, wearing minimal form-fitting clothing.[14] The images are stored on your phone and are processed in the cloud.[15] Amazon does give you the option of not opting-in to share your information.[16] The company states that pictures are processed and stays in the cloud for only 12 hours.[17] But since the pictures are uploaded, as a user, any of our private information stored on any company’s cloud should be of grave concern. As with Garmin’s latest ransomware attack,[18] our private, especially sensitive information, could be accessed by others, including the governments.[19] As consumers, skepticism must be high, because it could become a significant privacy issue in the future.

As with the Tone feature, machine learning analyzes the emotional and social well-being of the user.[20] Halo measures your voice’s pitch, intensity, rhythm, and tempo and categorizes them into “notable moments” that can be reviewed throughout the day.[21] The tech giant claims Halo records only on the wearer’s phone.[22] The recordings are claimed to be deleted after analysis and won’t be shared with the cloud or used to build machine-learning models.[23] However, Amazon has a history of spying on its users.[24] Even if Halo provides an option for turning off the microphone, the user’s emotional data could still be sold to other enterprises.[25] The tech giant has an agreement with the insurance company John Hancock and medical record companies for the Halo program.[26] The tech giant offers this product for a low price on a subscription basis. But the real value lies in the aggregation of user data. The Halo is a highly invasive product and has the potential to violate one’s right to privacy. A company like Amazon is likely to exploit your data for other means. In the end, it remains to be seen whether a consumer could really trust Halo with all this personal data of theirs.

[1] Kate Kozuch, Amazon Halo: Release date, price, fat scanning and privacy concerns, Tom’s Guide (Aug. 28, 2020), https://www.tomsguide.com/news/amazon-halo-release-date-price-fat-scanning-and-privacy-concerns.

[2] Id.

[3] Andrew Martonik, The Amazon Halo has a lot to prove before it can compete with Fitbit and Apple, Digital Trends (Aug. 27, 2020), https://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/amazon-halo-fitness-band/.

[4] Dieter Bohn, Amazon Announces Halo, A Fitness Band and App That Scans Your Body and Voice, The Verge (Aug. 27, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.theverge.com/2020/8/27/21402493/amazon-halo-band-health-fitness-body-scan-tone-emotion-activity-sleep.

[5] Kozuch, supra note 1

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Bohn, supra note 4

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Isobel Asher Hamilton, AI experts doubt Amazon’s new Halo wearable can accurately judge the emotion in your voice, and worry about the privacy risk, Business Insider (Aug. 29, 2020, 5:30 AM), https://www.businessinsider.com/experts-skeptical-amazon-halo-judges-emotional-state-from-voice-2020-8.

[12] Scott Stein & Vanessa Hand Orellana, With Halo, Amazon’s entry into the fitness space is ambitious, but odd, CNET (Aug. 28, 2020, 1:21 PM), https://www.cnet.com/news/with-halo-fitness-band-app-amazon-fitness-space-ambitious-odd/.

[13] Kozuch, supra note 1

[14] Bohn, supra note 4

[15] Id.

[16] Hamilton, supra note 11

[17] Bohn, supra note 4

[18] Brian Barrett, The Garmin Hack Was a Warning, WIRED (Aug. 1, 2020, 7:00 AM), https://www.wired.com/story/garmin-ransomware-hack-warning/.

[19] Sara Fischer & Scott Rosenberg, Government wants access to personal data while it pushes privacy, Axios (Aug. 26, 2019), https://www.axios.com/government-wants-access-to-personal-data-while-it-pushes-privacy-aacc15f1-bbcb-481b-b6ae-278e0f15e678.html.

[20] Kozuch, supra note 1

[21] Bohn, supra note 4

[22] Stein et al., supra note 12

[23] Id.

[24] Dave Smith, MicrophoneGate: The world’s biggest tech companies were caught sending sensitive audio from customers to human contractors. Here’s where they stand now, Business Insider (Aug. 22, 2019, 3:22 PM), https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-apple-google-microsoft-assistants-sent-audio-contractors-2019-8.

[25] Hamilton, supra note 11

[26] Id.