Pattern Matching

The Hidden Cost of Amazon’s Surveillance Tech

A new drone from Amazon subsidiary Ring raises familiar questions

Ring

The phrase “surveillance capitalism” was coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff to describe the system in which internet platforms such as Google and Facebook profit through free services that track users’ online behavior. Another company in their cohort, Amazon, has in recent years taken a different approach with its subsidiary Ring by offering actual, physical surveillance devices that allow its users to track other people. It’s not surveillance capitalism so much as plain old surveillance tech.

The surveillance tech model is far more straightforward than surveillance capitalism, at least on the surface: Customers pay Ring directly for the privilege of putting Alexa-enabled cameras on their property. The power of surveillance is in the user’s hands, and they can choose whether they share it with neighbors or law enforcement through the Neighbors app.

The two models have something in common, however, in that the surveillance comes at a cost that isn’t reflected in the price paid by users. Economists call this an externality. In Ring’s case, the privacy cost is not to the people who buy Ring devices, but to the people they use those devices to watch. In some ways, that’s more insidious than the Facebook model — people choose to use Facebook, but they don’t necessarily choose to be captured on a Ring camera. On the other hand, Ring would likely argue that its devices also have positive externalities, because they make the neighborhood safer even for people who don’t buy them, although evidence for that is mixed.

The Pattern

Surveillance tech empowers its customers to disempower others.

  • On Thursday, Amazon held its annual Alexa hardware event, announcing a suite of new Alexa-powered gadgets that promise to insert cloud-connected, digital eyes and ears into new spaces and contexts. Last year, those devices included earbuds, eyeglass frames, a finger ring, and the Ring Indoor Cam, an indoor security camera to complement the exterior Ring Doorbell. The company also last year announced Amazon Sidewalk, a protocol for a mesh network, shared between physical neighbors, that can connect smart devices beyond the reach of home Wi-Fi, potentially spanning whole blocks or neighborhoods. I wrote at the time that Amazon, which has been nicknamed the “Everything Store,” was becoming the “Everywhere Store”: a cloud company whose presence is becoming inescapable in the physical world. Introduced in concept last year, Amazon Sidewalk is now gearing up for launch.
  • At this year’s event, the showstopper was a drone camera that flies around your house, monitoring each room one by one. It’s called the Ring Always Home Cam. It will cost $250 upon its release next year, and it’s explicitly intended as a personal surveillance device for your own household. Because it’s mobile, it can reach pretty much anywhere except behind a closed door, filling in the gaps between stationary Ring Indoor Cams. An Amazon promotional video shows the device hounding a hapless burglar back out the sliding door he broke into. Presumably it could also be used to check whether you’ve left the stove on or a door unlocked, make home movies (and TikToks), or harass your pet — though the latter two uses may be constrained by the fact that it can’t be manually controlled. It can only fly along paths that you pre-set.
  • The concern that should be obvious, but which Amazon apparently did not bother addressing, is that a flying household surveillance camera could also be used to harass, well, your household. In 2018, the New York Times reported that smart home devices were increasingly being used by abusers to spy on, spook, and control their partners. The Always Home Cam could take that to a new level, University of Washington professor Ryan Calo tweeted. “What this does is make it impossible for a child, spouse, or roommate to get away from the camera. The operator can check on anyone, anywhere. Meanwhile, Amazon gains access to the interior of the home,” which the drone carefully maps in order to navigate without bumping into things.
  • It’s not hard to imagine Amazon one day using something like the Always Home Cam to take inventories of users’ stuff and recommend things to buy, or even order refills automatically, sort of like a smart fridge for your whole house. It could give the company an edge over Facebook and Google in the race to make digital maps of everything in your life in order to facilitate augmented reality technologies and improve their virtual assistants.
  • There are a few, basic privacy features. The device only records while flying, and it makes a noise as it flies so that you’re less likely to forget it’s there. “This is privacy you can hear,” Ring founder Jamie Siminoff said in a blog post. (I’m not sure he’s correct that people are likely to associate the sound of a humming camera drone with feelings of privacy, but whatever.) When it’s docked, the dock blocks the camera. And again, it can only travel prescribed paths, so it won’t wander into, say, the bathroom unless you’ve programmed it to do so. Those are helpful for protecting customers from accidental misuse, though they do little to prevent abuse.
  • Digital surveillance expert Chris Gilliard of Macomb Community College told me he’s concerned about what the Always Home Cam represents with regard to Amazon’s future plans. “Mostly I see it as a stepping-stone to the more invasive stuff they’ve already discussed,” he said, such as a 2019 patent for an outdoor surveillance drone that could patrol your property, perhaps using Amazon Sidewalk.
  • Amazon also announced at its event a new, swiveling Echo Show smart display that can detect human shapes and follow you around the room with its camera. And it unveiled three products for the car: a Ring Car Cam, a Ring Car Alarm, and a system called Ring Car Connect that lets automakers integrate those devices into the vehicle’s systems. The Ring Car Cam in particular seems like a natural extension of Ring’s original doorbell camera system, designed specifically to deter car break-ins and auto theft. The company also announced Alexa Guard Plus, a security service that uses your Echo and Ring devices to listen for suspicious noises, send you notifications, bark at intruders, and even connect to a private emergency helpline run by Amazon. All of which should further entrench Amazon as the leader in building a new, privately owned, distributed surveillance infrastructure that serves both its customers and law enforcement.
  • Why the boom in surveillance tech at a time when crime rates in the United States are drastically lower than they used to be? Amazon and Ring don’t really make a serious effort to justify it; their marketing campaigns play on people’s fears but make no mention of how warranted those fears may be.
  • There are, of course, downsides to a society in which everyone is constantly spying on each other: The expectation of privacy diminishes as each new door, car, home, and street sprouts A.I.-equipped, cloud-connected cameras, leaving fewer and fewer spaces unsurveilled. But the decisions about whether or not to buy surveillance tech aren’t made by society; they’re made by individual Amazon customers. If I buy surveillance devices, it’s my peace of mind that benefits, but it’s your privacy that suffers. (At least, that’s how Amazon wants you to think it works; in reality, there’s cause to worry that your own cameras could be used against you, whether by hackers, by law enforcement, or by members of your own household.) To be fair, your surveillance device could also theoretically benefit your neighbors if the proliferation of Ring devices becomes such that crime rates decrease overall. But again, whether that’s worth the trade-off of what would amount to an Amazon-controlled surveillance state is dubious.
  • Surveillance tech and surveillance capitalism may seem unrelated, but there’s a sense in which they enable one another. In an interview with The Verge’s Dieter Bohn, Amazon executive Dave Limp sought to downplay the privacy concerns around surveillance tech by pointing out other ways in which we’ve already forfeited our privacy. “I’d be more worried about the camera on your phone than I would be about a drone,” he said.
  • Amazon is of course not the only company building surveillance tech. Next week, the Peter Thiel-backed data-mining company Palantir will go public, with an expected valuation of more than $20 billion. Palantir’s model is different, in that it focuses on crunching data (including surveillance data in many forms) rather than providing the hardware to collect it. And its customers are primarily government agencies and big businesses, rather than individuals. (It only has 125 customers, a tiny number given that it’s been in business for 17 years, but most of them are very large.) But its value proposition is similar: It promises to help its customers track and predict human behavior — often, though not always, for purposes of security — at the expense of other people’s expectations of privacy. The company has yet to turn a profit as it aggressively reinvests revenues to pursue ever-larger contracts, including with federal agencies such as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, for which it helps track down undocumented immigrants for deportation, and the U.S. military. But its enormous valuation suggests that investors are bullish on the model.
  • Until or unless we get regulations that place a real value on people’s expectation of privacy — and impose either limits or costs on technologies that reduce it — the surveillance tech boom is likely to continue, regardless of the trade-offs involved. The cheaper it gets to snoop on people, the more ubiquitous snooping will become, as we all sacrifice each other’s privacy for our own security. Society — especially the marginalized and the vulnerable — will bear the intangible costs, while big tech companies and their investors pocket the very tangible profits.

Undercurrents

Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time

  • The Cold War between mobile platforms and app developers flared up on multiple new fronts this week. According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, Google is tightening its enforcement of rules that give it a 30% cut of in-app purchases made through the Google Play Store on Android devices. It had previously turned a blind eye to some developers’ efforts to circumvent the fee by directing users elsewhere for payment. The move comes as both Google and Apple are facing antitrust scrutiny over such fees, and brings Google’s policies a step closer to the ones that have made Apple a bigger target to date. The move might seem counterintuitive, but it reflects both companies’ determination to hold the line in response to an insurrection from Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite. Google still has the more defensible position from an antitrust standpoint, because unlike Apple, it allows third-party app stores on Android devices. At the same time, Apple has temporarily backed down from taking a 30% cut of online classes and events sold through its App Store. While that may ease the pressure on one front, it underscores the arbitrariness of Apple’s rules, and how they can tilt the playing field for developers in one direction or another. Finally, a Facebook executive tells The Information that his company has pushed for Apple to allow users to set Facebook’s Messenger app as the default for messaging on iPhones. Facebook going public with that call, after apparently keeping it private for years, suggests it sees Apple as particularly vulnerable now, likely due to the various antitrust inquiries. If that’s the case, this is another example of how a credible threat of antitrust regulation can affect firms’ behavior even before any actual laws are passed or enforced.
  • Moore’s Law is dead. Long live… Huang’s Law? That’s the term the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Mims is trying to coin, in reference to a recent trend of accelerating performance by the silicon chips that power artificial intelligence. He makes the case for Huang’s law as part of a profile of the chip maker Nvidia, which has become a driving force behind A.I. advances in the past decade. “While the increase can be attributed to both hardware and software, its steady progress makes it a unique enabler of everything from autonomous cars, trucks and ships to the face, voice, and object recognition in our personal gadgets.” My OneZero colleague Dave Gershgorn, who follows A.I. more closely than I do, agreed the trend is noteworthy, but pointed out that an eight-year trend may be a shaky basis on which to build a law. Still, the comparison of Huang’s Law to Moore’s Law — which was driven in part but not exclusively by Intel — could be instructive in explaining why Nvidia wants to buy fellow chipmaker Arm.

Headlines of the Week

How much oversight can an oversight board have if an oversight board has no real oversight?

— Josh Sternberg, The Media Nut newsletter

Rat that sniffs out land mines receives award for bravery

— Anna Schaverien, New York Times

An entire village lost its broadband at the same time every day for 18 years. Now we know why.

— Jack Guy, CNN

Going postal: A psychoanalytic reading of social media and the death drive

— Max Read, BookForum

I am all love blaseball (and you can too)

— Cat Manning, The Garden of Forking Narratives

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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