Amazon's new home drone is sparking surveillance dystopia fears
- Amazon on Thursday unveiled a camera-mounted drone that can fly around inside your house, called the Ring Always Home Cam.
- The drone can launch itself from its base and automatically patrol your house if it's alerted to a disturbance by a paired Ring alarm.
- The announcement prompted privacy fears around the increased incursion by big tech surveillance products into people's homes.
- The tiny drone is arguably one of Amazon's less invasive products.
Amazon's latest security wheeze — a miniature drone that flies around your home looking for burglars — has prompted horrified responses about the potential for increased Big Tech surveillance.
Amazon unveiled the Ring Always Home Cam on Thursday, a tiny drone that can fly around your home and check for disturbances.
The $250 device sits inside the home in a cradle, and will launch itself if triggered by a paired Ring alarm. Ring alarms are supposed to respond to a wide range of emergencies such as break-ins and fires. The drone will then fly around according to a preset pathway, and stream live footage of what's happening to the user's phone.
—Ring (@ring) September 24, 2020
Imagery and footage of the drone launching itself from its base triggered some blowback online, both serious and tongue-in-cheek.
"The spy drone for your house run by megacorp is 100% from Black Mirror and also wasn't supposed to be a fun product idea," wrote one user.
The Internet of Shit Twitter account, which pokes fun at seemingly pointless connected devices, wrote: "An internet connected drone camera for your home, owned by Amazon. this definitely won't be a privacy nightmare *at all*."
And security expert and programmer Patricia Aas wrote simply: "Wtf is wrong with this industry?"
UK-based privacy advocacy group Big Brother Watch described the drone as "arguably Amazon's most chilling surveillance product yet."
"It's difficult to imagine why Amazon thinks anyone wants flying internet cameras linked up to a data-gathering company in the privacy of their own home," said director Silkie Carlo in a statement. "It's important to acknowledge the influence that Amazon's product development is having on communities and the growing surveillance market."
Amazon tried to allay privacy concerns about the drone following users round their houses by saying it was deliberately designed to be noisy so you can hear it coming — although it is only supposed to take off when its owner is out.
"Designed with privacy in mind, the motors even hum when in flight — it's privacy you can hear," Ring says on its website.
And as unnerving as an autonomous home camera drone undoubtedly is, another product unveiled on Thursday may be more troubling.
The new version of Amazon's smart display screen, the Echo Show, can automatically swivel to follow its owners as they move around.
Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, said while the drone was "likely to be a magnet for privacy concerns", it was better than devices like the Echo Show "which have a front-facing camera that is always exposed."
Amazon's current smart home devices also have the potential to snoop on unsuspecting users.
In 2019 Amazon and other big tech firms were found admitted to sending snippets of audio captured by smart assistants like Alexa back to human moderators for review.
As reported by Bloomberg, the Alexa recordings included sensitive and intimate moments. The discovery sparked outrage from consumers who didn't know their private conversations could end up in the hands of human reviewers.
Amazon's made it possible for users to opt out of having these snippets sent back, but having those recordings sent off is still the default setting.
Ring, which Amazon bought for $1 billion in 2018, is also already the subject of privacy concerns with or without the drone.
Ring has drawn public scrutiny both for its relationship with police departments and the overall security of its systems, which have been accessed by hackers.
In one instance a hacker took control of a camera in an 8-year-old girl's bedroom and taunted her, saying he was Santa Claus.
Amazon addressed these concerns at its Thursday event, promising to strengthen Ring's services with end-to-end encryption by the end of this year.
It's also possible that worries about intrusive surveillance will be less of a concern for the Always Home Cam than the drone haplessly flying into things.
"Along with the usual privacy concerns, Amazon will also have to reassure users that the Always Home Cam won't bump into things or people," added CCS Insight's Ben Wood. "The way you set it up, and the assumption that it will only operate when occupants are not in the home, will go a long way to address these concerns, but it will only be possible to really understand the device fully once you've had a chance to use it."
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