Amazon has been in the crossfire over the past week, dodging new allegations of privacy violations, enforcing existent racial biases and more or less building a nationwide surveillance network, with or without unregulated police cooperation. And it all boils down to reports that it’s considering implementing facial recognition in its Ring doorbell cameras.
Networked doorbell cameras have become standard in many American households, and Ring dominates the market. The camera pairs with a Neighbors app, where like-minded owners share footage or photos of anything they deem out of the ordinary or suspicious in their area. The stated goal of sharing is to help catch porch pirates and other assorted criminals, and the platform is already used by over 630 police agencies across the country in ongoing investigations, thanks to partnerships with Amazon.
The Intercept claims to have seen internal documentation that suggests Amazon is thinking even beyond this stage of use of smart, interconnected doorbell cameras. It’s considering using facial recognition to build neighborhood watch lists that would match suspects displaying suspicious behavior to criminals on police wanted lists. In other words, anything a Ring owner deems “suspicious” would instantly go on the record with any police agency Amazon is working with, potentially helping enforce and spread racial and social bias.
Whenever a person nears a Ring-equipped home, he or she could trigger a “suspicious activity prompt” on the Neighbors app on the owner’s phone. The internal documents don’t say what this suspicious activity would entail. A “proactive suspect matching” feature would then run the suspect’s face against a police database of suspected or known criminals.
Ideally, this could help track and catch criminals, but it could be used for racial profiling by creating lists of unwanted individuals in well-to-do areas. It could also serve for surveillance on a nationwide scale while leaving people unaware their movements are being tracked.
According to The Intercept, if facial recognition is enabled, Amazon’s Ring would evolve from “icon of unsettling privatized surveillance” to builder of a “nationwide surveillance network,” privately owned by Amazon and shared in a completely unregulated manner with the police. It would usher in and eventually normalize bias, based on every owner’s subjective notion of “suspicious behavior” or “suspect.” It would weaponize the IoT device to an unprecedented degree.
Facial recognition in Ring cameras is a “contemplated, but unreleased feature,” Amazon said in a statement responding to concerns of privacy and human rights violations. “If our customers want these features in Ring security cameras, we will only release these features with thoughtful design including privacy, security, and user control; and we will clearly communicate with our customers as we offer new features.”
Ars Technica says that “privacy, security and user control” mean different things for Amazon than they do for the rest of the world. Specifically, when Ring owners share footage with police (or when Amazon does), all responsibility for possibly violating the privacy of people in the footage falls on the camera’s owner.
Image credit: geralt