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Amazon's Ring drone camera sets a bad precedent for privacy – CNET


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Ring’s Always Home Cam features a camera below its propellors, which will be covered when docked.


Amazon

Amazon’s fall hardware event has come and gone, and as usual, it delivered a jetstream of announcements, including new Echo smart speakers, an all-new cloud gaming platform and — perhaps most interestingly — a flying camera drone from Amazon’s home security brand, Ring. Yes, the Ring Always Home Cam can literally undock, hover into a given room and record footage of, say, a break-in.

Depending on your point of view, Ring’s new drone cam could be a symbol of a shining, robotic future, or it could be a harbinger of darker days ahead. Ring insists its new camera is secure and private, and with a launch date of “early 2021” you won’t have to worry about it this year, but regardless of the particulars at release, the Always Home Cam is a bad precedent.

The privacy equation

The trade-off at the core of most privacy debates pits convenience against access to your data. The idea is, the more data you let a tech giant access, the better they can help you: Google’s services, from Search to Gmail to Google Maps, are prime examples of this trade-off at work. Google says it can serve up results, from ads to restaurant recommendations, informed in part by what it knows about your preferences.

I’ve explored this core logic, and its many implications before, but for now I just have a question about Ring’s new flying camera: Why should anyone buy a product that seriously erodes their own privacy and that of their community for something only very mildly convenient?

Let’s be honest: Minor convenience is what this drone deals in. You get five minutes of battery life, which means you’ll have just enough time to check on sounds of entry in the case of a break-in — or more likely, to double check your stove to make sure you turned it off or your dog to make sure she’s alive. (Spoiler: she is.)

In the unlikely case a burglary is in progress, will a camera-equipped drone change the outcome? Will it be a more effective deterrent than, say, an alarm, or significantly more likely to identify the intruder than a couple of indoor or outdoor smart cams strategically aimed at points of entry?

The answer to both is likely “No.”

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The Always Home Cam will release in 2021 for $250.


Amazon

Counting the cost

Importantly, the cam’s cost isn’t just $250. It’s your privacy, too. Sure, the camera is blocked while docked. And the drone only patrols when you tell it to. But Amazon has been systematically extending the independence and reach of its home technology, making Alexa in particular more proactive and predictive.

Alexa Guard and Guard Plus listen for a wide range of noises like glass breaking and footfalls, and Amazon is expanding the voice assistant’s ability to respond to such noises, too — including babies crying, dogs barking, people snoring and more. I would be surprised to see Amazon’s cam drone not offering proactive monitoring in response to certain noises when it releases next year.

But such features only raise more questions, and serious ones at that. Ring has partnered with hundreds of police forces across the country in efforts to reduce crime (although, as we’ve reported, the evidence suggests such cooperation does not reduce crime rates). Along the way, experts have raised alarms at the ethical slippage occurring: Coordinated video surveillance, curated by Amazon and even partially accessible to police, represents a major blow to privacy.

All of that hoopla is for cameras outside the home. Think of the complications added by cameras patrolling inside your home. When I reached out to ask about specific security and privacy measures, a Ring spokesperson said, “The Always Home Cam was designed as a privacy-first option, particularly for those customers who want the benefit of whole-home security but may not want to install cameras in every room in their houses – such as bathrooms or bedrooms.”

They went on to list the limitations of the device, including its inability to go up or down stairs, its loud motor, its lack of a microphone and more.


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Finally, the representative offered the usual response about cooperation with police: “Ring receives and responds to legally binding law enforcement requests for user information on a regular basis … [But the company will not] disclose video recordings [without customer consent] unless necessary to comply with the law or … there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious injury” (emphasis added).

To respond, I agree that the Ring Always Home Cam is a better option than installing cameras in your bathrooms, though bathroom cams (which are largely illegal in public restrooms precisely for privacy reasons) are not the standard against which we should hold up our home security devices.

While the technical limitations of the Always Home Cam certainly help maintain some semblance of privacy-mindedness on the part of Ring, the camera still sets a problematic precedent. Once these cameras are adopted more widely, any incremental “improvements” to security, such as microphones or longer battery life, will necessarily result in privacy erosion.

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At its fall hardware event, Amazon showed off footage taken from an Always Home Cam.


Amazon

Ring’s response to questions about police involvement were particularly disappointing because of its long history of initiating cooperation with police forces — as in its growing network of police “partners.” Days ago, Ring’s parent company Amazon attempted to soothe the concerns of privacy analysts about its expanding Sidewalk project by comparing its service to the postal service. Amazon helps direct your data but doesn’t “open it up and read it,” as it were.

By contrast, Ring seems to communicate again and again that they are more than willing to open up your private data and share it with police. While Apple refuses to unlock iPhones belonging to terrorists, Ring happily cozies up to police departments and acts as though their requests of your private data should be honored without a fight.

Doing the math

The user data/convenience equation here seems clear to me. The Ring Always Home Cam isn’t Google Maps, which helps us navigate our world, while gathering data on our daily travels. It isn’t even Facebook, which allows us to connect with far-off friends, while gathering data on our lives. This is a camera-equipped, flying drone to install in your home, which will let you double-check… well, things you can already double-check on apps, like lights and door locks. It welcomes a company with a record more spotted than clean to keep footage of your most private spaces.

Will the Always Home Cam turn your reality much more dystopian than it already is? Probably not. But it’s taking steps in that direction. My take: Frogs in fear of boiling water shouldn’t wait for the water to get uncomfortable. They should just avoid pots on top of burners.

I won’t buy the new Ring Always Home Cam when it drops in 2021. You shouldn’t either.



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