Amazon Key Is Not As Invasive As You Think…Probably

Last month when Amazon announced its newest offering, Amazon Key, people were skeptical.  Responses ranged from confused, to excited, to, naturally, cautious.  But now that it has officially arrived people are…still skeptical.  And not without good reason.

Here’s how it works: Amazon Prime customers are eligible to purchase the Amazon Key In-Home Kit for $299.99.  The package includes a camera (the “Amazon Cloud Cam”) that connects to your wifi and acts as the system hub, a smart lock, and the Amazon Key App.  An Amazon technician comes to your house, mounts the camera so that it has a view of the door, and installs the lock.  If you live in one of 37 cities, the option for in-home delivery will be available during the Amazon.com checkout process.  Customers will get a notification when the delivery person is on the way.  When the courier arrives, he or she will scan the package to ensure it’s in the correct location, use the app to open your door, slide the package inside, then close and lock it behind them.

Going beyond just eliminating front porch package theft, Amazon is quick to promote the benefits of the new system, including:

  • A Personal Assistant: The Cloud Cam is equipped with a microphone and speaker, and can function like other Amazon devices that support Alexa. It can do things like adjust the lights, play music, etc.
  • A Home Security System: Prime members may also purchase a home security subscription that allows users to record 24+ hours of video and comes with zone and person detection.
  • Access for Service Providers and Friends: In a promotional video, Amazon touts the possibility of granting one-time or recurrent access to friends and service providers like dog-walkers and house cleaners. (It conveniently integrates with their Amazon Services platform).

Despite these benefits, consumers and scholars have raised a number of questions around the new product.  These include inquiries around homeowner’s insurance rates (will they go up if your insurance company knows you frequently allow strangers into your home?), users’ liability (Amazon is quick to disclaim all liability for third party accounts or services, Compatible Products that Amazon does not manufacture or develop, and any guests or service providers to whom users provide authorization to operate the lock), and security, both physical and network-related.  It’s worth noting at the system uses ZigBee, a trusted wireless network protocol used by many smart home devices.

Some of the most common questions center around users’ privacy.  Many people’s first reaction to hearing of this product is the same: do we really want strangers to be able to enter our homes? While Amazon tries to dissuade these fears by allowing users to view video recordings of package drop-offs and report any issues, many remain unconvinced.  Amazon’s current Alexa-enabled devices are speech-activated; they are “always ready” and record sounds or conversations for a short period of time before someone says “Alexa.” Section 3.2 of Amazon Key’s user agreement states recordings will be collected by Amazon in much the same way.  While voice recordings present their own set of challenges (e.g., a “voice print” constitutes either a biometric or personal record and may be subject to regulatory restrictions under the Privacy Act, FERPA, or HIPAA), video recordings are the next level.  In addition to recording users’ faces, gestures, and actions, the video monitors a home’s layout.  This may give users some pause, considering the outcry against Roomba’s house-mapping data collection and sharing.  Is it possible that Amazon ads will start popping up on the websites we visit marketing new furniture (“your foyer looks a little dated”) or services (“we noticed you gave access to a friend arriving tomorrow—want to book some cleaners in preparation for her arrival?)

Many concerned about the privacy piece of this puzzle have also been quick to point out additional law enforcement-related concerns.  Amazon has tackled government requests for recordings before.  In a widely-publicized case, the company initially refused to turn over cloud-stored data gathered by an Alexa device at the scene of an alleged murder without the owner’s consent.  It’s not clear the degree to which Amazon might contemplate turning over records like access grants and video recordings without a warrant, but if that case is any indication, the company likes to keep a tight leash on the consumer data it collects.  It’s possible the government could argue that giving the company such wide-ranging access to one’s personal home might indicate a lowered or non-existent reasonable expectation of privacy, but we’ll have to wait for the first cases to roll around in order to see if and how law enforcement obtains this data.

As Professor Alessandro Acquisti points out, however, society’s view of what is “private” is constantly evolving.  Many of us wear fitness trackers that transmit and share our health data and use app-based ridesharing services, for example.  Furthermore, people surrounded by others who adopt a technology are often more willing to try it out themselves.  It may be that users are willing to trade in a piece of their home privacy for the convenience of physical keyless access and an assurance of safe package delivery.  But before they do, consumers should educate themselves and those for whom they provide access.  Aspects such as whether and how a device indicates it is recording and clear instructions on how users can manage and delete their data will be key in alleviating some of these concerns.

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