Is Amazon’s Ring worth the risk?28th Feb 2020
Amazon’s new Ring doorbell includes a smart camera that lets you monitor your doorstep while you’re away. That’s a good thing … and, as a string of lawsuits suggests, a bad thing too.
If you shop online in the United States, it’s fairly common for courier companies to leave your package on your doorstep if you’re not at home to receive it. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly common for people to steal those packages. In New York City alone, about 90,000 packages go missing every day, while about 15% of all deliveries in urban areas fail to reach customers on the first attempt, according to a report in the New York Times.
This is obviously an inconvenience for shoppers, and an expense for e-commerce platforms who have to replace packages purloined by those ‘porch pirates’. A company like Amazon, which already ships packages at a loss, has a vested interest in making sure those doorsteps – and the packages left on them – are kept safe.
No wonder, then, that Amazon bought Ring for $1 billion in early 2018. Ring sells camera-equipped smart doorbells that let you remotely see, hear and talk to whoever’s at your door. They also work with voice-enabled smart-home devices (like Amazon’s Alexa) to let you know when a package has been delivered, and to catch porch pirates in the act.
In December 2019 – right in the middle of the Black Friday, Cyber Monday and pre-Christmas shopping season (or, as a local county spokesperson put it, ‘The season for giving and the season for taking’) – New York’s Nassau County Police Department in Long Island partnered with Amazon Ring to use video footage captured by Ring doorbells to identify and apprehend thieves.
Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder explained that Ring users would be notified that ‘last night, at this date, this time, there was a crime in your area, and law enforcement is asking for your assistance. Would you like to share your video with law enforcement?’
So far, so secure. Amazon wins by not having to replace as many packages. Customers win by not having their deliveries stolen from their doorstep. Local police win by getting camera footage to help them solve crimes.
But Ring’s technology hasn’t proven to be a win for everybody – and a string of lawsuits suggests that other territories, like South Africa, will have to do their homework before implementing similar technologies.
In late 2019 Ring confirmed that it had fired four employees in its Ukrainian office for illegally accessing US users’ videos. During the year an Alabama family sued the company, claiming a stranger had accessed their Ring doorbell and used it to terrorise their children. Another family in Mississippi claimed that a hacker had accessed their Ring doorbell and used it to talk to their young daughter in her bedroom. A family in Florida filed a suit claiming that their Ring doorbell had also been hacked, with the hacker shouting racial abuse through its speaker.
Civil liberties groups and privacy watchdogs, meanwhile, have criticised Ring and its law enforcement partners for what they believe is an invasion of privacy.
So while the idea may sound perfect (blending, as it does, the power of personal home security with local police services), there are clearly still privacy and data security concerns that need to be addressed.
Those concerns aren’t going to stop Amazon or Ring from innovating, though. At the CES tech trade show in early January 2020, the company showcased its latest line of products – including a virtual control that would allow home owners to remotely open their gates for deliveries.
What could possibly go wrong?