Tech product launches in the year 2020 involve a kind of perspective whiplash that makes it more difficult than usual to decide whether or not you really need the thing.
There’s the consideration of whether the gadget fits into your life right now, at a time when our needs have changed considerably. There’s also the fact that most of the products launching this year were dreamt up in 2019 or earlier. Back then, tech companies had a different vision of the future in mind, or at least different ideas of what the “lifestyle” images in their 2020 product marketing kits would look like. We all did.
Do you need a fully autonomous surveillance drone for inside your home? At this point I am going to say no. And yet, around 14 months ago, someone—or someones—at Amazon wrote up a future press release for a multi-camera drone that flies from room to room in your home, surveilling your abode from overhead.
The drone was announced today at Amazon’s annual hardware event, typically a rapid-fire release of new Echo products, Alexa updates, and the occasional gadget oddity, like a talking microwave. Other than this year’s Amazon event being virtual, it was similar to years past. There’s a new orb-shaped Echo speaker, and an Echo Show with a swiveling screen. But it was the Ring drone that stole the show, because it demonstrated just how far Amazon is willing to go to get into every space in your home.
Come Fly With Me
This drone is called the Ring Always Home Cam. (The product is being sold under the Ring brand, which Amazon owns.) I asked Dave Limp, Amazon’s top hardware executive, whether it was named that because it is always in your home, or because we are now always home. Limp says it’s more the former, a nod to Ring’s ethos, the notion that it’s there even when you’re not. This noisy whir of techno dystopia can be yours for $249 when it ships later this year.
How you feel about the Ring Always Home Cam probably depends on how you feel about having any Ring camera in your home, because that’s part of the pitch. “The seed was planted by the customers who don’t want cameras in every room for privacy reasons, or because they don’t have power outlets in the right spot, or because they can’t afford a camera in every room,” Limp says. “This seemed like an interesting way to thread the needle a little bit.” (In an interview with the Verge, Ring founder Jamie Siminoff called it an “obvious product that is very hard to build.”)
When any kind of disturbance in your home is detected, the drone will launch from its dock and fly to where the incident is—say, if there’s an intruder, or a raccoon, Limp suggests. It’s all part of Amazon’s larger strategy to have its singular products plug in and fly and rotate and simply appear where you need them to be, similar to the way the voice assistant Alexa started to show up, well, everywhere. Amazon’s been at this for a while now. The drone may be coming from inside the house, but it should also come as no surprise.
Limp’s suggestion that the Ring drone could help thwart an intruder or something as benign as a raccoon rummaging through your trash is representative of the calculations consumers are forced to make whenever a new internet-connected product is shoved in our faces. There is the knee-jerk gadget blog reaction—look at this freaking drone—and then the inevitable pause when its implications are considered.
The Ring Always Home drone is still a Ring camera. Amazon originally said the device would be included in the hundreds of video-sharing partnerships Amazon has with law enforcement agencies across the US. The company later sent a correction and said the drone would be ineligible for this “video request” feature. These partnerships have been criticized by civil liberties groups and lawmakers for potentially contributing to “a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” as Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts wrote in a letter to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos last fall. Ring has maintained that sharing videos with the police is always the customer’s choice, but the concern has been whether they’ve been nudged into doing so.
Now, in 2020, a home surveillance drone conceived of just 14 months ago seems both more prescient and problematic. Who, exactly, is the technology going to help the most? To put it bluntly: What happens if the intruder is also the police? (Similarly, Amazon announced a $200 Ring car camera with dual-facing cameras and a feature called Traffic Stop. If someone is being pulled over by the police, they can command Alexa to start recording the interaction and save the video to the cloud.)
Over the years, Ring has also been called out for significant privacy blunders, which it has taken steps to address. Today the company said it would finally roll out end-to-end encryption on its video feeds by the end of the year. This means videos won’t be as easily shareable, Limp says; only the person with the keys to the account will be able to access Ring videos. “You could argue we should have done it sooner,” Limp says. “I would take that criticism.” And yet, videos won’t be end-to-end encrypted by default. Customers will have to opt in to that advanced privacy feature.
Limp argues that the Ring drone has at least a couple automatic privacy features. One is its sound. Drones use rotors, or fans, for propulsion. These are noisy. Whether it’s flying towards someone entering your house from the outside, or someone inside the home who would prefer not to be surveilled, the drone will announce itself. It’s a somewhat bizarre explanation when part of the drone’s pitch is to be a flying substitute for the multitude of cameras that would sit silently on your windowsills. If the rummaging racoon, the intruder, or the erosion of civil liberties doesn’t wake you up at night, the drone will.
A surveillance drone that flies around your home—in your home!—is the stuff we could only have imagined 30 years ago, or even just a few years ago. To hear Amazon tell it, it was designed to be a problem solver, a solution for wanting a camera in every corner of your home. A techno-utopian vision of safety. Look at this freaking drone. If only someone could have imagined that our 2020 problems would be much greater than this—and in fact, tangled right up in it.
Update, 12:23 am ET, September 25: The original article said that the Ring Always Home Cam would be a part of Amazon’s partnerships with law enforcement, based on comments made by Amazon following the hardware event. Amazon later corrected its statement. Clarifications have also been made about the end-to-end encryption feature of the camera.
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