Paying with Privacy: The True Cost of Amazon’s Surveillance Systems

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Last month, Amazon unveiled a series of new products, including an indoor drone that flies autonomously within the home and a palm recognition scanner to be used at two of Amazon’s grocery store locations in Seattle. While tech enthusiasts may be delighted by the convenience and security that will be generated through Amazon’s gadgets, civil rights advocates have argued that these are simply the latest additions to the company’s ongoing normalization of ubiquitous surveillance technologies and data collection, and more ways in which user privacy can potentially be violated.

Indeed, many critics of Amazon’s new products contend that, given the company’s history of security issues, the minimal legal protections in place for digital privacy, and Amazon’s growing expansion into users’ homes, the company is increasingly moving towards the creation of an invasive surveillance system that can threaten civil liberties and facilitate abuses of privacy. Though Amazon has addressed these allegations by offering stronger security services for their products, some remain skeptical, citing previous hacking occurrences and incidents of employees abusing access to user video data.

These are simply the latest additions to the company’s ongoing normalization of ubiquitous surveillance technologies…

“Amazon’s entire business model is based on surveillance,” says Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future. “With each new product they release it becomes more and more clear that their goal is to amass so much data about everything that their monopoly power becomes unchallengeable.”

Notably, other surveillance products by Amazon have already raised concerns of privacy breaches over the years, even when not committed by the company itself. With the growing use of Ring cameras, for example, individuals have noticed increasing levels of distrust, hostility, and racism within their communities as a direct result of inappropriate uses of the affiliated application, Neighbors. Through this platform, homeowners can share video footage captured on their Ring cameras and frame captured individuals however they want. Alarmingly, users have noted a disproportionate amount of video posts featuring people of color, with descriptions employing racist language or making racist assumptions. Many commenters on the app have also been found to be encouraging users to call police for any conflict that occurs, no matter how minor. As stated by Shahid Buttar, director of Grassroots Advocacy for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this can be lethal for black or brown neighbours.

“Given the reality of police violence… impacting primarily people of color in the United States, these kinds of acts threaten the lives of third parties who are simply, in some cases, doing their jobs or living in their own neighborhoods,” argues Buttar.

Additional concerns have also been raised over Amazon’s growing partnerships with law enforcement agencies. Since March 2018, Amazon has been working with police departments across the U.S. in an effort to create a “new neighbourhood watch” that can offer “proactive home and neighborhood security in a way no other company has before.” As of June 2020, this has resulted in 1300 partnerships. Through these agreements, police can request access to residents’ Ring videos through the Neighbors app and, with their consent, use footage as evidence for arrests. Even if users refuse access, officers can still contact Ring directly to obtain footage should they receive a warrant, essentially providing police with access to potentially millions of cameras across the United States. While Amazon has claimed that these relationships help “make neighbourhoods safer” by deterring and solving crimes, an investigation by NBC News has found that, after interviewing 40 law enforcement agencies that have partnered with Ring, there is little evidence to back this claim.

Individuals have noticed increasing levels of distrust, hostility, and racism within their communities…

“We don’t have any research data showing that Ring has a correlation to a reduction,” wrote Jodee Reyes, a spokeswoman for the Carlsbad Police Department. “Our residential burglary rate began decreasing before Ring gave us access to their portal. There are more than likely many factors that have led to this decrease.”

Moreover, internal documents from Ring acquired by CNET showed that police are also allowed to share Ring videos with other law enforcement agencies and store them for as long as they wish. This means that footage can even be shared with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be used as evidence for deportations where there may not have been cause to do so before, causing users to unknowingly become informants for these arrests.

While most of these more concerning instances have occurred in the U.S., the mayor of Windsor, Ontario has voiced desires to be the first Canadian city to partner with Amazon and establish a citywide Ring surveillance system. In the coming years, therefore, Amazon’s surveillance may eventually dominate cities in Canada.

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