Amazon's new Ring surveillance drone
Unless you’re reading this inside a military facility or deep in the wilderness, chances are that Amazon is listening somewhere near you. The company’s network of more than 200m Echo devices has given the e-commerce business access to people’s homes around the world.
Amazon has for years been planning an expansion into offering home security services which could transform its access to people’s homes into a worldwide surveillance system that prevents crimes while also handing Amazon unrivalled information on people’s everyday lives.
So far, Amazon’s ambitions in the security market have largely been centred around Ring, the smart doorbell company that it bought for $1bn (£740m) in 2018.
But patent filings and upcoming products point to a future where Amazon watches your house from drones delivering packages to your neighbours, while its doorbells silently swap images of people deemed suspicious by its artificial intelligence systems.
“I know this looks like science fiction, but it’s not,” said Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos when he unveiled the company’s plans to deliver items in 30 minutes using a fleet of drones.
At the same time that the company was developing those plans, employees found a secondary use for the drones. As they fly over houses delivering parcels, the drones could use their cameras to watch people’s homes as well. When the drones spot anything suspicious, they could alert customers.
A 2015 patent filing by Amazon explains how the system would work. “With a variety of sensors aboard, including a digital camera, a UAV may be deployed to perform secondary tasks that are different than delivering a package to a destination,” the document reads.
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Subscribers to Amazon’s “surveillance as a service” product, as the patent calls it, would be alerted if drones flying overhead spot graffiti, a fire, or any doors left open in their house. Neighbours who haven’t paid for the service would have their footage ignored.
Projects like this could give Amazon a significant boost in revenues if meaningful numbers of customers sign up for aerial surveillance. “If Amazon is able to create more subscription services into its flywheel, it’s certainly good for the bottom line as well. It’s recurring, sustainable revenue over a period of time,” says Sanchit Jain, an analyst at Enders.
In September, Amazon launched a security service which shows how its existing products could be upgraded to conduct surveillance for customers. Customers in the US who have Echo speakers can now pay $49 per year for the speakers to constantly listen for suspicious noises such as breaking glass.
If Amazon detects any suspicious activity, it can sound a warning and alert the authorities. And if you’re planning to be away from home, Amazon can automate your smart home lights too to make it look like you’re still there.
It’s unlikely that Amazon will stop there with its surveillance plans, though. A patent granted to the company earlier this year describes a system that listens to the everyday sounds of your household and replicates them when you’re away to deter burglars.
Gathering information on what customers sound like in the home could help Amazon to predict which times to serve you adverts or deliver your parcels.
“If you imagine Amazon in 20 years time,” Jain says, “it’s very possible that Amazon knows you are going to be in the house between these hours, [so] this is the optimal time to deliver your goods.”
A spokesman for Amazon did not deny the company’s plan to collect data on its customers, instead saying: “Amazon, like other online and offline businesses, uses data to provide and improve our services for customers.”
Amazon is able to continue its expansion into home security products that constantly watch and listen thanks to a continued high level of trust in the business. A report published earlier this year by Morning Consult found that nearly 40pc of Americans trust Amazon to do the right thing, compared to less than 10pc who trust the US government or Wall Street.
The company is also consistently ranked as the most-trusted technology business in the US, ahead of Google, PayPal and Netflix. The only brand that’s more trusted than Amazon is the United States Postal Service.
Next year, Amazon will begin selling the Ring Always Home drone, a $250 device which flies around your house to watch for intruders. It too could give Amazon useful information on what people do behind closed doors.
Ever get a Ring Alarm alert and want to immediately see what's happening? The Ring Always Home Cam is here to help. This compact, lightweight, autonomously flying indoor camera gives even greater visibility when you’re not home. Learn more: https://t.co/A62pZUuYDa [US Only] pic.twitter.com/13cXKtEeSs
— Ring (@ring) September 24, 2020
Products like these concern privacy activists who worry that Amazon and rivals like Google are normalising constant surveillance.
“It normalises surveillance of yourself, your family, your children,” says Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch.
“Whether people are actually worried about it or not, it will change behaviour over time,” she adds, “particularly with these ambient surveillance devices that are just constantly listening in the background, that is a massive step change from what was once a sacred, private space of home.”
Amazon also has ambitions to connect together its network of Ring doorbells, patent filings from 2018 show.
The documents describe a way to prompt people to share footage of suspicious people with their neighbours, attaching messages such as “this guy was going around the neighborhood asking about a lost dog. Some of my neighbours mentioned him bugging them too.”
More worrying to privacy activists was another idea for a database of suspicious people which could store images of unwanted visitors alongside information on criminals such as sex offenders. If one of these suspicious people was caught on camera, police could be alerted.
Join the dots between Amazon’s Ring patent filings and its drone surveillance idea and the company could easily repurpose its existing technology to carry out aerial surveillance over cities tracking suspicious people as they walk around on the streets below.
“This takes commercial surveillance into a whole different realm,” Carlo says. She’s concerned that politicians may not yet understand the potential reach of Amazon’s surveillance concepts.
“By the time it does come to developing policies and safeguards, by then you’ve got big tech lobbyists involved,” she says. “Once these drones are flying around our heads, what do we do? How do you put them back? You can’t put this stuff back in the box. Once it’s normalised, once it’s out, it’s so hard to put it back in.”
Amazon, predictably, has a different view of its technology. “We believe customers shouldn’t have to choose between innovation and privacy, and that’s why privacy is foundational to each of the products and services we offer,” a spokesman said via email. “Smart home security is fundamentally improving and simplifying the way people interact with their homes.”
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It’s also possible that none of the ideas described in Amazon’s patent filings ever come to pass. These documents are often used by companies as a form of marketing or to prevent rivals from pursuing business opportunities.
Amazon in particular has filed hundreds of patents for bizarre technology such as a miles-long whip to fling satellites into space, a retractable handle for windsurfing using drones and an underwater warehouse.
And an Amazon spokesman said in a statement that “patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services. Privacy and security will always be paramount when considering applying any patents to our business or technology.”
But Amazon’s direction of travel seems clear: It has spent years developing hardware that people love and are willing to plug into their homes, and now it’s exploring ways to add security services to those devices.