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Amazon’s Vision Quest is Powered by Cameras — and Now by the Public

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Amazon’s Vision Quest is Powered by Cameras — and Now by the Public

Anne Dennon

Anne Dennon

Technology and Finance Writer

Image: Ring.com

3 min. read

Amazon boasts a particular ethos: The company, like its founder, is visionary. Brave forays into new categories — perhaps most obviously, space travel — exhibit a clear-sighted futurism. Vision is something we’ve come to expect from the ever-expanding retail giant, but its vision is more than philosophical. Amazon’s pursuits are increasingly tied to vision, as in sight, as in cameras. 

Take Amazon Go. The cashier-less grocery store chain is still limited to about a dozen urban locations, but the concept sent shock waves through the grocery industry. Kroger joined forces with Microsoft to model a high-tech grocery store of their own, and other chains are following suit. The technology that makes Amazon Go so unique, so explosive? A heck of a lot of cameras. 

When Amazon acquired the smart home brand Ring in 2018, it looked like a repeat performance of Google’s acquisition of Nest in 2014. But Google’s exploration of smart home security with Nest has been strongly associated with privacy — preserving the home’s sanctitude, putting the user in control. The most notable feature is the ability to turn both the camera and microphone plain off. (Well, except for the status light.) 

Amazon’s iteration on the smart home makes gestures toward privacy (like the ability to delete commands by just telling Alexa to “forget what I just said”) but the larger movement is towards mass surveillance. 

Amazon Ring is building out a surveillance network that connects private devices, then shares footage with community members and police departments via the Ring app, Neighbors. While private citizens don’t have to own Ring devices in order to join the app, police departments and cities must enter into a partnership with Ring in order to gain the unprecedented level of oversight that conjoined private monitoring devices offer.  

Amazon’s iteration on the smart home makes gestures toward privacy, but the larger movement is towards mass surveillance. 

Vice’s tech blog Motherboard has spent the last several months investigating Ring’s partnerships with police departments and cities, turning up disconcerting tidbits about how Ring is directing these partnerships. Points of concern range from the tight control Ring exerts over official “messaging,” to the tax-payer-funded incentive programs that finance Ring camera giveaways and subsidized purchases. 

While many chafe against the broader, police-state connotations of such a system, there’s also more immediate ethical issues tied up in surveillance and facial recognition technology as it currently functions. Racial profiling is one major concern, leading to the organization of campaigns like Fight for the Future that want to see elected officials taking a stand against Amazon’s “for-profit surveillance state.”

Deterring property crime — and improving neighborhood safety as a result — is the aim of all home surveillance cameras. An expanding cache of Ring doorbell cameras is also poised to protect what’s on most of our front stoops: Amazon packages.