Oversight

Amazon Is an Even Bigger Threat to Privacy Than Facebook

With its Ring doorbell, the tech giant can now see what you buy, what you browse, and who you’re letting into your home

Credit: Grant Hindsley/Getty

“W“Where were you at 6 p.m. last night?” asked a marketing email sent to journalists immediately following Halloween last week. It was sent by Ring, Amazon’s doorstep surveillance system that sends video directly to the police.

“If you were trick-or-treating,” it continued, “you were part of the millions of people out ringing doorbells this Halloween!” On Instagram, Ring boasted about just how many millions of children it had recorded on video. Apparently, the company was hoping reporters would write a cute story; instead everyone was extremely disturbed.

But Ring is just one fiefdom in Amazon’s surveillance kingdom. The tech giant may already know everything you buy and everything you browse, and their Orwellian reach into society is only becoming worse.

Amazon has arguably become an even bigger threat to American’s privacy than Facebook.

Ring has been a growing source of controversy over the past few months, as its cameras have become more popular — likely without people fully knowing what they’ve signed up for. Ring claims to have sold millions of their spying doorbells to customers since its existence, but it’s the company’s aggressive campaign to partner with police organizations that has everyone really spooked. Law enforcement agencies in over 400 cities and towns can submit automated requests for people’s surveillance footage, no warrant or any legal process whatsoever required. Amazon even coaches police on how to coax more footage out of users with getting a warrant.

How many people using Ring know that their private footage is being watched halfway around the world by random strangers?

Led by Fight For the Future, an advocacy organization focused on protecting internet rights, more than 30 civil rights organizations called on Amazon to immediately halt its Ring partnerships with police, yet Amazon only doubled down in response to the criticism.

And it’s not just police who are watching. According to a report in Bloomberg News, Amazon has dozens of contract workers in India and Romania watching clips from Ring cameras, allegedly in an attempt to better train its artificial intelligence. How many people using Ring know that their private footage is being watched halfway around the world by random strangers?

It’s these types of privacy nightmare scenarios that can be seen across Amazon’s incredible reach into society. In response to a similar controversy about contract workers listening to snippets of recordings from Amazon’s Alexa, the automated assistant that has a microphone in tens of millions of households, Amazon has insisted privacy is a priority.

It’s unclear how their milquetoast statements should comfort anyone. Police can secretly access recordings from your Alexa with a warrant; they’ve randomly sent snippets of private conversations to other users; they can be hacked; you may visit people’s homes and not know that they are on. Amazon openly admits their end goal is to run your entire life on Alexa; and that it is now building Alexa-based wearable glasses so that people can have Amazon listening in whether they are in their home or someone else’s.

But it’s Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition, that is perhaps most terrifying. The company has been pushing its dangerous facial recognition software on police departments around the country, even going as far as aggressively selling it to its Ring partners. (Amazon claims they aren’t going to integrate facial recognition into its Ring cameras, but mark my words: It’s only a matter of time before they do.)

Countless civil liberties organizations have demanded Amazon stop selling it to police, yet Amazon has said they have an “unwavering” commitment to the police and miliary. To underscore the ominous threat, the ACLU of Massachusetts recently ran photographs of Boston athletes from the Patriots and Red Sox through Recognition and compared them with a set of mugshot photos. The results that came back were shocking: 28 of them were misidentified as criminals.

Sadly, these products only skim the surface of the almost unfathomable amount of data Amazon is amassing on every American. OneZero’s own Will Oremus covered the litany other worrying areas Amazon is gaining at foldhold in an in-depth piece, from Amazon hosting CIA’s mount of data in its cloud to pitching Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on its products.

The idea that Amazon is making privacy a “priority” is laughable. They are literally selling police agencies around the country invasive tools with the sole purpose of invading everyone’s privacy. While Facebook gets most of the headlines involving privacy violations and faces the the lion’s share of the public’s backlash to tech companies, Amazon has so far come away largely unscathed. Congress should take notice before everyone’s every move is tracked, stored, collated, and served up to the police for any reason they please.

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. His writing has appeared the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Intercept.

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