HHere is the scenario. It is 3:30 p.m. and you are away from home. A burglar breaks into the living room patio door. Shortly after, two things happen. A small drone sitting discreetly in its charging station case spins through life, and your smartphone beeps. The drone leaves its case and begins a flight through the house on a scheduled inspection path, streaming high-definition video live to your phone as it goes. The burglar sees and hears the drone, grasps what is happening and runs away.
Fiction? Not at all. This is just Amazon’s latest gadget – announced at its fall hardware event on September 24. He came up with a nice video to illustrate the above scenario – although it does feature an incredibly nervous burglar who, upon seeing the drone, fled as if he had seen a ghost. But other, less dramatic uses of the drone have been suggested. This would be useful, for example, if you arrive at your nearby workplace (remember that?) And wonder if you left the kitchen window open. This viewer wonders about equally mundane questions: how would the device treat its cats, who regularly roam the house in search of surfaces that are off-limits to them when it is physically present; How does the drone handle closed interior doors – or even the interior of any normal home? Advertisements for so-called “smart” homes invariably feature the interiors of sterile, open-plan dwellings that no sane adult would want to inhabit.
The fact that the drone was labeled as a “Ring” device may have confused some observers, but that, uh, rings a bell for those of us who watch the tech industry. Ring is a company founded in 2013 under the name Doorbot. Its original products were a doorbell with a built-in video camera and network connection, and an app, Neighbors, for online social sharing of captured images between users. The company was acquired by Amazon in 2018 for more than $ 1 billion and part of the tech giant’s global home penetration strategy, which was launched with the original “smart” speaker Echo.
Ring fit perfectly into this strategic vision. After all, a video doorbell is very useful for a business that does a lot of deliveries, especially when everyone was going to work during the day. It allows the owner to “answer” the doorbell even when he is not at home, and possibly to communicate with the delivery person to know where to leave a package, etc.
But a doorbell can only monitor what is outside the house. The challenge of the technology industry has always been: how to get into it? The Echo was a start and, to the fury of the rest of the industry, it gave Amazon a critical foothold in this previously inaccessible territory. But Alexa is not supposed to listen to what is going on. And, besides, she has no eyes. However, Ring’s Always Home drone does – although the company goes to great lengths to explain that when docked in its cradle, the camera is covered.
What will happen next is entirely predictable. Most other companies will follow – just as the Echo spawned a legion of “smart” speakers. And, like any other surveillance device, the drone will trigger the usual speech. Sure, it could be scary if used unethically, but – hey! – isn’t it cool that you can always check out what’s going on in your house when you’re away? After all, anyone can see (and hear) when the drone is flying, so it’s not like people won’t know if you’re spying on them. What not to like?
Where do we start? The obvious place is Ring’s somewhat erratic security past. In 2019, a survey by Motherboard found that its devices lacked “basic security features, which makes it easy for hackers to turn company cameras on customers.” In January of this year, a survey of the Ring Doorbell app for Android by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that it was “filled with third-party trackers sending a plethora of personally identifiable information (PII) from customers.” Four major analytics and marketing companies were discovered to receive information such as names, private IP addresses, mobile network operators, persistent identifiers, and sensor data on devices from paying customers. Two weeks after the study was published, Ring announced that it was changing its privacy settings to prevent the company from sharing most of the information, but not at all, of their data. Etc.
This sort of thing is normal for the course. The fully secure network device has not yet been invented. And the industry standard response is still to blame users for not taking proper safety precautions. When “smart” devices make their unhappy users vulnerable, it is always the fault of the customer, rather than the supplier. So here’s a useful motto when you dabble in these kinds of things in the future: for “smart” read untrustworthy.
What i read
How to plan for the post-Covid future. An extensive and insightful essay by tech publisher Tim O’Reilly on his company site.
Thanks for sharing
How nearly $ 50 billion has been transferred from ordinary Americans at 1% since 1974. A remarkable study by the Rand Corporation.
Meet Thomas Jefferson’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson. A truly amazing story for our time Magazine Smithsonian.