Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Gizmodo Used Publicly-Accessible Location Data in Ring’s Neighbors App to Map Amazon’s Home Surveillance Network

Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehrotra, Gizmodo:

Ring’s website states that supplying a home address enables Neighbors to “create a radius around your home” in order to share alerts from “within that radius.” (Users aren’t required to provide accurate information.) As such, users presumably expect that their own posts are, likewise, visible only to the neighbors in whose radii they fall. Ring’s website implies as much: “Conversely, if you share an alert on the [Neighbors app] about a crime or safety issue in your radius,” it says, “your neighbors will also get a notification on their phones and tablets.”

A Ring spokesperson said elsewhere the company characterizes posts to Neighbors as “public” and allows users to link to specific posts on social media. Gizmodo found that Google has indexed almost 2,000 Ring videos so far. However, it’s unclear whether users understand that posts, including those containing accurate location information, can be easily viewed by anyone, from anywhere on the planet.

The density of cameras that this reporting revealed is shocking to me. For a country like the United States that as wary of interference in personal freedom, many residents of American cities certainly are eager to give Amazon eyes on every block.

It reminds me of the steady drumbeat of reporting from the United Kingdom that it is among the world’s most-surveilled nations. It seems that a handful of reports are released every year about Britain’s big brother problem — but few acknowledge that most of these cameras are privately owned, and are subject to far more permissive privacy laws. In many regions of the world, private surveillance can operate with few rules in broadly public spaces, so long as there is notice that cameras are being used.

I agree fully with Maciej Cegłowski:

In his excellent book on surveillance, Bruce Schneier has pointed out we would never agree to carry tracking devices and report all our most intimate conversations if the government made us do it.

But under such a scheme, we would enjoy more legal protections than we have now. By letting ourselves be tracked voluntarily, we forfeit all protection against how that information is used.

Those who control the data gain enormous power over those who don’t. The power is not overt, but implicit in the algorithms they write, the queries they run, and the kind of world they feel entitled to build.

When it comes to the ethics of monitoring individuals, is there really a difference between when it’s done by the government or one of the biggest companies on the planet? I don’t believe there is.