Amazon’s Prime Day is a lot like Black Friday — a fake holiday that makes a ton of cash. Last year, in just two days, Prime Day raked in $3.5 billion. The event is meant to celebrate Amazon’s birthday, but the company in 2021 is very different from what it was in 1994. We’ve seen Amazon go from bookseller to everything-seller to full-on gadget-maker. That third part worries us. Its devices’ relationship to privacy is troubling, and by now — as the company turns 27 — Amazon is old enough to know better.
Discounts are exciting, Amazon’s data practices are less so. We could talk at length about privacy and Amazon — the company that popularized Alexa, the company that tracks you as you shop online, the company that will soon track you as you shop offline, the company that has privacy experts worried about a massive mesh network (hope you opted-out in time), the company that…
The list goes on. And then there are Amazon’s camera-enabled doorbells.
In 2018, Amazon acquired the video doorbell company Ring and the product continues to be a leading video doorbell option. Not only can Ring owners record anyone without their consent, it’s unclear if Amazon was using footage from Ring to train its facial recognition technology. What is clear, however, is Amazon’s worrying partnerships with law enforcement — previously offering facial recognition tech and allowing police to request footage from consumers’ Ring home cameras. Amazon put a temporary pause on selling facial recognition to law enforcement in the wake of the George Floyd police-brutality protests, a pause that is still in place a year later.
As the internet indulges in another Prime Day, we want to call attention to the ways Amazon has become troubling in the realm of video surveillance. Ring devices and Amazon’s other products may be discounted this week, but we’re not convinced the impact on your privacy is worth the cost.
So to talk more about this, we chatted with Kaili Lambe, senior campaigner at Mozilla, and privacy advocate. Kaili leads Mozilla’s campaign calling on Amazon Ring to end its partnerships with police, in order to address the police surveillance culture it encourages. Here’s what worries her about Amazon these days.
We all know Amazon’s Ring cameras are a little too cozy with law enforcement. Amazon recently changed Ring’s terms so that law enforcement needs to be public about its video requests. Great news! At least in the short term. Long term, Lambe sees this as a chess move by Amazon.
“Video requests going public is an improvement, in a sense.” says Lambe. “Community groups won’t have to complete time-consuming documentation to learn about police video requests.”
“But there’s a flipside,” Lambe warns. “The requests from law enforcement are put onto Ring’s Neighbors app, Amazon’s community group that’s similar to NextDoor. Amazon’s Neighbors network is open to everyone, not just Ring owners. But platforms like these perpetuate a culture of fear. One has to wonder if Amazon is pushing people to use Neighbors in hopes of stoking residents’ fear of their surroundings, so they turn around and buy a surveillance camera.”
Ever hear of the term “group polarization?” It’s the idea that when two people of similar beliefs come together, they become even more passionate about the belief. We see this all the time with sports teams and politics and, for better or worse, our biases.
Group polarization happens everywhere, and Amazon’s Neighbors app isn’t immune to the effect. “Platforms like Neighbors and NextDoor bring out some of the worst biases in people,” says Lambe. “We’ve seen examples where you’ll see a post on kids playing in an alleyway, filed under the category ‘Suspicious Activity.’ In actuality, they’re just kids playing in an alleyway who happen to be Black and brown. But, unfortunately, categories like ‘Suspicious Activity’ reinforce a bias people have [about those kids]. Those who hold the same bias chime in to say, “oh yeah, that is suspicious activity.”
Amazon sells everything, but what has us most concerned on Prime Day are the steep discounts that the company uses to encourage you to buy Amazon products that compromise your privacy and normalize surveillance.
If you absolutely need a smart home camera, consider one that keeps your videos private but also doesn't share footage with law enforcement. Review our Privacy Not Included guide, which includes cameras like Eufy’s, that stores your data locally and not in the cloud, and Arlo’s video doorbell, which claims to not monetize its users' data.
In case it isn’t clear, Ring is troubling. Not only are you — and anyone near your home — being recorded without your consent, but that footage can be shared with law enforcement in just a few taps.
“It’s important to remember that this IoT device has a partnership with police — that should worry people,” says Lambe. “Increased surveillance doesn’t necessarily make us safer, but the assumption that it does reinforces the idea that people should buy more of these cameras. Making surveillance like this more prevalent without thinking about the consequences and broad impact it could have is problematic. It’s hard to say where things go from here but it should concern all of us.”