In 2018, Amazon paid $1bn (£756m) to secure Ring (a smart-camera doorbell start-up) to rival Google’s own Nest security system. The companies are now vying to corner this new corner of the UK tech market - but at what cost?
Opening the door for business
Video enabled and motion activated doorbells offer customers the ability to see and interact with visitors to their door. They can add an element of convenience for homeowners whilst they are away from home by allowing them to interact with guests and delivery drivers.
Some products like Nest Hello, and Amazon Key, even include smart locks allowing us to grant entry to our home for deliveries, groceries, tradespeople and dog walkers when we aren't around. This is a key synergy for Amazon, allowing it to increase the amount of successful deliveries for its core business. If Amazon were to combine its two offerings, it could offer the retailer an advantage as it expands into new areas such as groceries and delivered to your door prescriptions (following its acquisition of Whole Foods and PillPack).
A modern and affordable security solution
Being video enabled and motion activated, with the ability to link to other smart security devices (such as security cameras, lights and alarms), the devices also offer a modern home security solution. This is a key selling point for the tech giants who see boosts in neighbourhood sales when customers share videos of break-ins and suspicious activity on social media. Ring have even introduced its own sharing platform in the form of its “Neighbors” app, which has been designed to share real-time crime and safety alerts from neighbours and local law enforcement.
But at what cost to our communities and private lives?
Critics have argued that the devices have been stirring up fear of crime in communities where it is actually decreasing. They argue the ability to share video content to social media platforms, is creating suspicion which falls more heavily on ethnic minorities, having the potential to reinforce racial barriers. Privacy activists have also been greatly concerned by Ring's partnership with police departments in the UK and US.
Through these partnerships police forces have been encouraging, subsidising, and even giving away devices in attempts to decrease crime and increase surveillance in communities. The partnerships are more established in the US, where it is reported that forces have access to heat maps of Ring devices. Ring have even considered proposals to allow police to remotely activate users devices in response to criminal activity in an area. At present in the UK, Ring is understood to have partnered with the Metropolitan Police, and forces in Suffolk, Leicestershire, Humberside and Hertfordshire.
The ability to integrate facial recognition technology into the devices is also concern. The functionality is already built into Google's product, and a patent has been filed appearing to show that Amazon is seeking to create a private database of suspicious persons. These persons could then, depending on local privacy laws, be tracked across communities. The future nature of these partnerships and impacts on our privacy remains to be seen.
But we’re in control, right?
To mitigate these privacy risks, Ring is developing new software to allow users to manage which devices and services can access their products. They are also introducing an opt out option for in-app police requests (although footage can still be requested or required by police directly). But does that mean you are in complete control? Ring's privacy notice can shed some light here. It states information may be shared with affiliates and business partners where they jointly offer products and services, or for marketing, customer service, order fulfilment and data analytics purposes. This will come as no surprise to Amazon Alexa and Google Home sceptics, who are already keen to keep the large tech companies out of our homes as they compete to learn more about us and our shopping habits.
Neighbouring and public property
For the UK at least, use of these devices and their impact on communities will be restricted by data protection laws. For example, in the UK, homeowners will need to be aware if their video doorbells and connected cameras capture footage of neighbouring or public property (think roads, and pavements) then they will be subject to the requirements of the Data Protection Act applying to the use of CCTV. This can, subject to limited exemptions, require individuals to give notice to the public of their use, limit the use and sharing of the footage and give effect to data subject rights. As with any domestic use of CCTV, there is also the risk of conflict with neighbours. Mistakes made here can prove costly, as was the case in 2017 when a dispute between two neighbours over their mutual use of CCTV, led the Scottish court to order the defendant to pay £17,000 in compensation to their neighbour (Wooley & Wooley v Nahid Akbar Or Akram  SC EDIN 7 ).
Claiming in some circumstances police could get a warrant forcing people to provide footage, she added: "The blurring of the line between law enforcement and private companies is a real concern." Griff Ferris, a legal officer at Big Brother Watch, has also referred to the partnership as 'a chilling Amazon-sponsored police project to extend the surveillance state on to people's property' that 'must be stopped'. However, Detective Superintendent Andy Smith of Suffolk Police has said the partnership is 'massively powerful', and that it has already led to the capture of several criminals.