Amazon: Privacy for Novelty?

People should be skeptical of Smart Home products offered by companies like Amazon, given the potential dangers already demonstrated.

June 19, 2023

B​y: Bobby Casey, Managing Director GWP

Amazon Privacy is a big deal. Much like life, it’s something you have that is precious and should be guarded at all costs.

T​here are privacy policies such as Google deprecating the third party cookie, or laws like GDPR that try to keep digital life from being so intrusive.

T​hen there are all the products and services for sale to make digital life even more secure such as VPNs.

But what strikes me as terrifying is the kind of technology and services that people eagerly pay for and welcome into their homes that fling the doors wide open.

W​e did multiple installments on the genetic testing companies and how an innocent desire to understand your genetic lineage can and has become a database for law enforcement to use to find criminals (here, here, and here).

T​he irony is, that while you’re thinking you are innocent until proven guilty, the John Doe warrant they get to comb through the databases suggests that for a while, you’re as suspicious as everyone else in there.

A more recently popular phenomenon is “Smart Homes”. You’d think with all the dystopian movies about central powers having visibility into your homes, this wouldn’t be nearly as commonplace as it’s become.

T​he Giver, Eagle Eye, Minority Report, Stepford Wives, and 1984! People still ran out and got the “Smart House”. The latest issues are coming from Amazon products such as Ring, Alexa, and Echo.

I​t’s been revealed employees had unfettered access to private footage captured by Amazon Ring cameras:

The FTC said Ring gave employees unrestricted access to customers’ sensitive video data said “as a result of this dangerously overbroad access and lax attitude toward privacy and security, employees and third-party contractors were able to view, download, and transfer customers’ sensitive video data for their own purposes.”

One particular case dating back to 2017 (prior to Amazon’s acquisition of Ring), “employees of Ring viewed videos made by at least 81 female customers and Ring employees using Ring products“. This went on for months unnoticed by Ring.

People brought Ring into their homes to actually feel safer. They thought having the monitoring would prevent incidents at the door with strangers, and deter package theft. Instead, it invited voyeurs into their most intimate situations.

In a separate privacy violation matter, Amazon came to a settlement agreement regarding allegations it “violated children’s privacy rights when it failed to delete Alexa recordings at the request of parents and kept them longer than necessary“.

A​gain, Alexa was supposed to be some automated assistant that played music and gave you information when you asked for it like the time, date, weather, trivia, or recipes. Maybe play some music. But it wasn’t meant to be a bug in your home.

Amazon disagrees with these allegations and claims they broke no laws. They only settled to put it all behind them and move forward. *Insert eye-roll here*

As part of the FTC agreement with Ring, which expires after 20 years, Ring is required to disclose to customers how much access to their data the company and its contractors have.

In February 2019, Ring changed its policies so that most Ring employees or contractors could only access a customer’s private video with that person’s consent.

T​his doesn’t instill a lick of confidence, but okay. Between over $30 million in fines and this tepid response, the cases are closed for now. But the invasive nature of their Smart Home products are not over.

N​ext headline reads:

Amazon shuts down customer’s smart home for a week after delivery driver claimed he heard racist slur through Ring doorbell – even though no one was home

Not sure if you know the full spectrum of things Amazon Echo can sync up with, but here’s a partial list:

  • Light switches and plugs

  • Cameras

  • Thermostats

  • Kitchen devices

  • Doors and locks

  • Routers and Extenders

  • S​mart toys

  • S​mart clocks

I​n this case, it indicates that he had at least an Alexa that remained unresponsive. But he was locked out of his entire Echo account; in the same way you might be locked out of an account with too many attempts with a wrong password.

To be clear, a black man was accused by another black man of making racial slurs through his Ring device when he wasn’t even home, and Amazon shut his account down.

I don’t care if it was the home of the Grand Wizard, and he was home, and he actually said hateful things: That’s still unacceptable. You want to cancel a contract, you put them on notice, and give them a chance to switch back to analogue. When you evict a tenant, you give the notice. When you fire someone from a job, you give them notice.

I understand private companies can have their policies and make up whatever rules they want. They can enforce them however they wish, no matter how vague, as well. But I wonder if the trade off is worth it?

Is voice activation really so great that risking getting locked out of your own home and its devices because they overheard you saying something that violates their community standards?

For now, we are opting into things like this. They are novelties. But what happens when they come standard? Or they become required?

Under Obama, the US was switched off of the analogue TV signals.

T​here was a recent attempt to phase out AM radio. It failed for now because many still rely on it for news about weather and natural disasters.

W​e are still marching forward with Central Bank Digital Currency and the cashless agenda.

What happens when CBDC intersects with DNA databases and the Community Standards Police of Big Tech?

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