In his book “1984,” George Orwell imagined that Big Brother-type surveillance would be imposed on us by a violent state. But it’s becoming clear that, in fact, we are eager participants in building our own dystopia, purchasing the very devices that constantly monitor, track and record us simply for our own convenience or a sense of safety. In the process, we’re laying the foundations for a bleak and oppressive future, because corporate surveillance sold for consumer purposes can just as easily be used as a tool for tyranny — and history shows us that it will.
And our self-surveillance devices have already begun to betray us.
Take Ashley LeMay, who bought an Amazon Ring surveillance camera because she thought it would keep her family safe. Instead, a grown man hacked into the camera she had placed in the bedroom of her three young daughters. He used it to stalk the children and even spoke to 8-year-old Alyssa through the camera, saying “I’m Santa Claus. Don’t you want to be my best friend?”
It was terrifying, and it wasn't an isolated incident.
A family in Florida also had their Ring camera hacked by someone who broadcast the whole thing live on a podcast. He monitored the couple before starting to harass them, shouting racist epithets and activating their alarm. A woman in Georgia who installed a Ring to monitor her dog discovered that it had been hacked four separate times after a man spoke to her through the camera, saying “I can see you in bed.” Someone threatened a couple in Texas through their Ring, demanding a ransom in bitcoin.
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Amazon claims that these chilling incidents were not caused by a security lapse on the company's end. But that’s just not true. The company sells cheap, insecure, internet-connected cameras knowing full well the dangers associated with these devices. And it doesn’t even require users to protect their cameras with strong passwords or two-factor authentication — basic security measures that should be the default for devices that collect sensitive information, let alone broadcast footage from inside people's homes.
Amazon, though, simply seems interested in scaring people into buying their devices than keeping those devices safe. Investigative journalists have uncovered a pattern of lax security and privacy practices: Ring doorbells have leaked their owners' home Wi-Fi passwords, and the associated Neighbors app has exposed users' home addresses.
And Amazon’s surveillance doorbell cameras are just the start: The company is selling a multitude of other gadgets equipped with microphones, cameras and sensors, all designed to gather enormous amounts of data, which Amazon refines — like crude oil — into power and profit. Alexa, the company’s “home assistant,” is constantly listening and explosive investigations revealed that Amazon employees have also listened, via Alexa, not just to private conversations, but also to deeply intimate moments such as couples having sex or kids singing in the shower. Amazon even marketed its microphone-enabled Echo Dot Kids directly to children.
Amazon devices aren’t just giving hackers and Amazon employees an eye or an ear into our homes. The company has also partnered with more than 600 police departments across the country to tap into the surveillance network its customers are creating for them, developing a seamless process for government agents to request footage from tens of thousands of Ring cameras without warrants or any judicial oversight. In exchange for their VIP access to footage from Amazon customers, police officers act as an extension of Amazon’s marketing department by encouraging residents to buy the spy doorbells, promoting them on official city social media accounts and, in some cases, even using taxpayer dollars to subsidize private purchases of them.
The societal implications of these private surveillance partnerships are staggering: Reports show a disturbing trend of racial profiling, with police flooded by false reports of “suspicious” individuals. Ring claims to care about the safety of its customers, but the company doesn’t even pretend to care about the safety of neighbors or community members who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement based on the color of their skin.
And many Ring cameras are placed on people’s front doors, capturing endless hours of video footage of innocent passersby, including children — most of whom are unaware that they are being surveilled and have not consented to being recorded. Amazon has openly admitted that there are no safeguards in place to prevent abuse once footage is shared with law enforcement, and that the government can store that footage indefinitely or share it with federal agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at will.
There seems to be no end to Amazon’s surveillance plans –– the company also sells facial recognition software to governments, claiming that it’s powerful enough to detect human emotions such as fear, and has toyed with the idea of including the software in Ring cameras.
It’s easy to feel like a world without human privacy is inevitable, or that it’s too late to stop the end of privacy; Silicon Valley elites are, in fact, counting on us feeling that way, taking our cynicism and apathy to the bank. But there’s a difference between posting on social media or browsing the web knowing that your data is being harvested, and a world where there are devices, whether Amazon's Ring or Google's Nest, literally watching and listening to us everywhere we go.
We can’t go back in time to a world without smartphones or CCTV cameras. But we can avoid diving headlong into a nightmarish future.
Spurred by journalism and grassroots action, elected officials at the local, state and federal levels have started asking questions about the dangers associated with Amazon’s surveillance-driven business model. Tens of thousands of people have called for a congressional investigation into Amazon’s surveillance-based business model, and dozens of civil rights groups have spoken out about the ways that Amazon's partnership between Ring and local police departments exacerbates existing forms of discrimination.
This week, my organization Fight for the Future is joining other consumer privacy and civil liberties experts and issuing an official product warning encouraging people to not buy Amazon Ring cameras because of the clear threat that they pose to all of our privacy, safety, and security.
For too long, we’ve been sold a false choice between privacy and security. It’s more clear every day that more surveillance does not mean more safety, especially for the most vulnerable. Talk to your family and friends and encourage them to do their research before putting any private company's surveillance devices on your door or in your home. In the end, companies like Amazon and Google don’t care about keeping our communities safe; they care about making money.