Smart Home Security vs. Privacy: Amazon, Google Confront Trust Factor
Amazon and Google are ramping up their focus on home security, raising privacy questions as well as the potential to transform the market in the long run, giving consumers steadily expanding security capabilities.
The topic of privacy is already bubbling up to the surface. Google apparently forgot to disclose that its Nest Secure home security system includes an internal microphone. After announcing that its Nest Cam IQ could do double duty as a Google Assistant speaker, the company was forced to explain why the company had not disclosed the presence of the microphone earlier. “That was an error on our part,” according to a Google spokesperson quoted by Business Insider. The microphone was included to support future extensibility such as the potential to detect the sound of broken glass, but “is only activated when users specifically enable the option,” the company explained. In terms of smart speaker owners, there are approximately 19.5 million Google Home users, according to an analysis from RBC Capital Markets.
Amazon has announced similar smart home security functionality with its forthcoming Alexa Guard feature. When set to “away” mode, the software can notify users if it detects troubling noises such as the sound of breaking glass or smoke alarms. The company is also offering support for alarms from its Ring subsidiary as well as from ADT, Abode, Honeywell Home and Scout Alarm.
Both Google and Amazon are seeking to continually boost the efficacy of their advertising by continuing to extend their brand into the home and elsewhere while also gathering more data from consumers. On one hand, both companies seek to better understand their customers’ behaviors in the home to help either lock consumers into their ecosystem, fine-tune their advertising algorithms, or both. But on the other, the companies are expanding the number of home security services they offer. “Google, Amazon and others are building home security 2.0 as a part of their smart/connected Home strategies,” said Chris Kocher, co-founder of the San Francisco consultancy Grey Heron. “They will tie [home security] into their platforms which can be used for temperature control, entertainment, cooking, planning and collaboration, educational research, e-commerce, etc.” Kocher said. “Security is just one more set of functionality with different devices, different services and potentially different business models and revenue streams.”
The diverging initiatives and the quick growth of the platforms are heightening security concerns in some quarters. Amazon’s Ring subsidiary also faced privacy questions after The Information divulged that the organization was sharing unencrypted video footage from its security cameras with Ukraine-based developers who could trace videos back to individual customers. Before the Amazon acquisition in February 2018 for reportedly more than $1 billion, Ring was facing complaints from its user base about false alarms from its connected cameras and doorbells. The products used stock motion detection software with proprietary image-recognition software to detect potential burglars. The system would routinely sound alarms if it detected nearly any type of motion — a falling leaf, a pet walking by or a car cruising down the street in view of the camera. “Sometimes, [the AI] couldn’t recognize a human from a dog,” an unnamed customer-support specialist told The Information. Ring employed developers in Ukraine to manually label such objects to improve the accuracy of the Ring’s machine learning.
While Amazon moved to restrict internal developer access to customers’ video footage, The Information reports that as of October 2018, even entry-level employees could access customers’ video feeds. The Russian language publication AIN, however, reached the conclusion that Ring had done nothing wrong in granting offshore developers access to consumers’ video feeds, arguing that the Ring’s terms of service covers “unlimited, irrevocable, fully paid and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right to re-use, distribute, store, delete, translate, copy, modify, display, sell, create derivative works […] for any purpose and in any media formats in any media channels without compensation to you.” Following the Amazon acquisition, Ring is doubling down on its Ukrainian presence and plans to open a second office in Ukraine, according to Kyiv Post.
Still, Ring is likely to benefit from its parent’s investment in deep neural networks, which enables computers to process complex stimuli such as speech and video data. In November 2018, Amazon’s Ring subsidiary applied for a patent for facial recognition technology that can trigger an alert when the system identifies a suspicious face. The accuracy of the system improves if the user has multiple cameras, as it can potentially form a composite from multiple partial facial images.