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Image: Joel Castillo

Amazon is neighbor to everyone in Seattle—but is it the kind of neighbor that rates a key to the front door? By giving the company access to our cluttered mudrooms and kitchen counters will our defenses against an invasion of privacy erode?

In October 2017, the tech giant launched Amazon Key, a combo of cloud-connected video camera and smart door lock that allows delivery drivers to drop packages inside a customer’s house, recording each event to prove they didn’t also nick the silver. And unlike drone delivery (we’re still waiting!), Key was available in Seattle almost immediately.   

Inviting Amazon inside isn’t a stretch for homeowners tired of hooligans stealing packages from the stoop; locally based Rover, a pet-care service, moved in 2016 to an Uberlike model where users can leave house keys in lockboxes outside and never meet the dog walkers the app assigns. At Key’s launch, Amazon called out Rover and house cleaners Merry Maids as services that will integrate seamlessly. With enough convenience, even people who prioritize privacy may jump on board. 

“There’s a big disconnect with what people say they’re concerned about and their acceptance of many of these technologies,” says Serge Egelman, director of usable security and privacy research at Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute; that gap is known as the “privacy paradox.”

Security and privacy, while closely related, aren’t quite the same thing; there’s trusting that systems like Key will only unlock for wanted visitors, and then there’s the psychological toll of having connected tech inside the house. Afra Mashhadi, an internet-of-things expert, notes humans are slow to remember their smart TV, lightbulb, or lock is stockpiling information on their habits. Even our shoes can track what miles we’ve walked in them. Users forget that a smart toaster does more than toast, “especially when those objects look exactly the same as the traditional counterpart.”

Egelman agrees that consumers are largely unaware of just how nosy technology has become. “Data capture is less and less apparent to the end user,” he says, as tech taps user location and other stats gathered to guess what we might buy—even what medical conditions we might have. And they’re not merely curious. Selling that data has become big business.

Amazon Key immediately became a target for security and privacy concerns. It took Rhino Security Labs, a downtown “penetration testing” firm (don’t laugh) that screens technology for safety weaknesses, less than a week to figure out how criminals could hack it and break into a home by freezing the camera and sneaking inside. 

After Rhino revealed the loophole, Amazon quickly announced an update to alert users during such freezes, but the company insists the security hole remains. 

As strict legal regulations on such data collection lag, consumers can still keep companies in check, says Janice Tsai, a privacy research scientist. She points to Mattel’s Aristotle, artificial intelligence meant to interact with children by listening—constantly; it was tossed last October amid uproar. “Once something’s in our home,” she says, “it can be used by other people.” 

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