Amazon’s vision for the future: Cameras flying around your home, and in your car to record police stops

This week, Amazon unveiled a bunch of new products, including many with cameras in them. These new devices will roll out early next year.

KUOW looked into the potential benefits and some of the security concerns they present.

You know those Amazon Ring doorbells, that record footage of people who approach your front door?

Now, Amazon has put a Ring security camera on a drone. It mostly just sits on the shelf, not doing anything, with its camera blocked by the docking station. But once in awhile, it takes off and patrols the inside of your home, with the camera running. If it sees anything suspicious, it pings you on your phone.

Then there’s another Ring car camera. That one mostly watches for prowlers. But if you’re stopped by the police while driving, you can just say “Alexa, I’m getting pulled over,” and it will record the traffic stop.

caption: Amazon's Ring Car Cam

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Both of these products, as well as a new Echo Show that turns to face you as you walk around the room, go on sale early in 2021. And they potentially expand the suite of tools police can use to solve crimes.

Right now, if police are looking for a suspect hiding in your neighborhood, Amazon will ping people with Ring doorbell cameras in the area through its Neighbors app and invite them to share relevant videos with police.

In this way, Amazon’s security cameras create a private surveillance network on residential streets that can help police.

Combined with Amazon’s facial recognition software (known as Rekognition), such videos can become a powerful tool for law enforcement.

Google and other companies also use facial recognition, but Amazon tends to take a more aggressive approach to aggregating data gathered by multiple camera owners, so that strangers may be tracked through a neighborhood.

But the technology has also raised civil liberty concerns, with critics saying this new surveillance network erodes the privacy we might reasonably expect when walking down a public street. They also say it encourages a sense of unease and distrust in users who constantly receive alerts about strangers who pass their front door.

Additionally, the facial recognition technology makes mistakes when identifying people, and it makes those mistakes more frequently when identifying people with darker skin.

Following recent protests for racial justice that put Amazon’s colalboration with police under a critical microscope, Amazon said it would prevent police use of Rekognition for a year, starting in June of 2020.

That means when Rekognition comes back online for police in June of 2021, there will be more cameras than ever in Amazon’s ecosystem.

Amazon spokesperson Emma Daniels told KUOW that the videos from the new flying indoor camera, like video from all indoor cameras (such as the Echo Show), are off limits to police and may not be requested through Amazon’s Video Request service.

For Amazon, there’s apparently a clear line between what is captured by outdoor-facing cameras mounted to your doorbell and what happens inside the house.

But as Amazon increasingly offers cameras that operate further from the house, that’s new territory.

Early next year, the company will offer cameras in your car. Someday, it’ll be cameras on delivery drones.

Daniels didn’t say whether videos from Ring Car Cam cameras could be requested by police, using the existing Video Request service. Apparently that policy is still being baked. Whatever Amazon decides, Daniels said, the company would be transparent.

However, police could bypass Amazon’s privacy policies by getting a search warrant asking for video. In its official policy, Amazon promises it will object to legal requests that it finds overbroad or inappropriate.

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