As Amazon Looks To Unlock Your Door, Taking Stock Of Meaning Of Privacy

Nov 8, 2017
Originally published on November 9, 2017 12:23 pm

Privacy has long been a moving target, thanks to technology.

For much of humanity's history, privacy referred to the physical environment — who can see or hear you. Consider one of the most famous law review articles, called "The Right To Privacy," penned in 1890 by Samuel Warren and future Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis.

The matter at hand was the invention of instant photo cameras, which turned private meetings into potentially semi-public or fully public ones, says Alessandro Acquisti, a professor at the Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University.

These days, much of what we used to do privately isn't that private. We wear step-counting trackers. We document our meals, gatherings and whereabouts online. We let giant tech companies into our homes through voice-activated home assistants.

Our boundaries have evolved, and "privacy" has become a term more tightly associated with our digital selves: the troves of data, the bits of our identities and activities, sprinkled through a myriad of databases.

Now, the physical and digital are merging in the shape of Amazon Key, rolling out on Wednesday. The new product from the retail giant allows delivery couriers to drop packages inside homes.

The $250 "smart" lock is linked to Amazon's Cloud Cam, which gets installed inside near the door. The pitch is convenience and, in fact, security: You can watch the courier enter the house on your phone, or use the lock to grant access to, say, a dog walker or cleaning crew.

This follows a similar pitch from a company called Latch, which makes keyless "smart" locks. It has has partnered with Walmart's to get packages into apartment buildings.

From the companies' perspective, in-home deliveries are a solution to the problem of package theft.

"As a researcher, I am fascinated and curious to see indeed how many consumers will take advantage" of Amazon Key, says Acquisti, "because that will tell us something interesting about, to what extent we now trust corporations with both our digital data and our very real, very off-line, very physical lives, such as the entrance to your house?"

Amazon Key's intrusiveness — what with the camera inside your home and software controlling your door — faced skepticism as soon as it was announced in October.

A Washington Post opinion column proclaimed it "Silicon Valley at its most out-of-touch." Satirical newspaper The Onion ran with, "Popular New Amazon Service Just Comes To Your House And Kills You." Several polls found a majority of Americans uncomfortable with the in-home delivery offer.

But, as Acquisti puts it, we are constantly redrawing the boundaries of what we consider private.

"You can imagine a scenario where — someone who already has an Alexa (Amazon's home assistant) and they are already comfortable with Amazon collecting information about their behavior and preferences," says Mary Madden, a privacy researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute.

Plus, there are other well-studied factors: We feel more comfortable revealing private details when we see other people in our circle doing it, and we do it more readily in a pinch — when you really need the app or the service and the company doesn't give you an easy out.

Already observers are saying that Amazon Key could trigger the same major cultural shift — as Uber did for willingness to get into strangers' cars, or Airbnb did for staying at strangers' houses.

To Madden, who is leery of Amazon Key, the major question is who's driving the cultural shift: Is it consumers demanding to trade off private details for more convenience, or companies making it very hard to resist?

"I don't think people are necessarily making fully informed decisions about all the implications of the use of (their) data. And I don't think they reasonably can," she says. Acquisti's research cleverly refers to this idea — consumers' efforts to stay on top of their own data privacy as companies keep pushing the envelope — as the task for "a modern Sisyphus."

"We are in a time," says Madden, "where even people who study these issues for a living can't keep up with all of the potential uses and implications."

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Today, Amazon is rolling out Amazon Key. It's a high-tech solution for allowing packages to be delivered inside your home when you're gone. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports on what that technology says about our views of privacy and convenience.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: If you think about the most basic way that people separate their public and private lives, it's a door, especially the door to your house.

MARY MADDEN: Hi, Alina. Welcome.

SELYUKH: How are you doing?

I'm stepping out of a rainy street into the home of Mary Madden. She studies digital privacy at the Data and Society Research Institute, and she points out something interesting about our digital lives.

MADDEN: We used to think of privacy and security as quite separate concepts. And increasingly, the two are becoming more closely associated and, in some cases, completely overlapping.

SELYUKH: Think of it this way. In the physical world, you trust that your front door will help keep your life private but also secure. Lately we've been trusting companies to do the same on the Internet. And now Amazon is asking for the actual key to that front door.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: As an Amazon Prime member, you'll now be able to use Amazon Key, a new service that enables in-home delivery.

SELYUKH: Amazon Key is an Internet-connected door lock linked with an Internet-connected camera that you put inside your house. The pitch is convenience. You can make sure your purchases don't get stolen or use the smart lock to let other people in remotely, like your dog walker.

MADDEN: It's easy to see the ways in which some of these technologies will make life more convenient. It's not always easy to see the risks that they may present down the road.

SELYUKH: With Amazon Key, these risks are both digital and physical. Amazon's camera lets you see who's coming in, but it's also software that opens your door. Software can be hacked. And a Wi-Fi-connected camera is only as secure as the Wi-Fi connection it's on. Plus, it's more ways for Amazon to learn about you.

MADDEN: People tend to assume that there are a lot more restrictions around what companies can and can't do than there actually are.

SELYUKH: Privacy researchers have been watching how trust is evolving. A Carnegie Mellon study a few years back tracked how people were cutting back on details they posted publicly while posting even more of them in their friend circles without thinking of Facebook and other apps silently listening in. These days, we've got voice-activated assistance learning about us inside our homes. And now there is an Amazon camera.

MADDEN: We are in a time where even people who study (laughter) these issues for a living can't keep up with all of the potential uses and implications.

SELYUKH: And Amazon Key will be one test for just how much we trust a company with access to our front door. Alina Selyukh, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.