Amazon Ring is in hot water again — but customers are still buying

by Caroline Bottger

Amazon’s Ring connected doorbell technology has been dinged for data harvesting by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The report, released on Jan. 27, details how Ring’s Android app reports user activity to four third-party data analytics companies, including Facebook — even if the user does not have a Facebook account. This personally identifiable information (PII) ranges from time of opening the app, device and carrier information and more. A Ring spokesperson said that this data is used to evaluate the performance of the Android app, not to sell it to third parties.

The lack of transparency and consent from users were key reasons for the EFF’s report. Bill Budington, senior staff technologist for the EFF, wrote, “All this [data harvesting] takes place without meaningful user notification or consent and, in most cases, no way to mitigate the damage done.”

Consent is a cornerstone of modern data privacy law. The California Consumer Privacy Act in the United States and the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe are explicit in the need for user consent before any personal data is collected or processed.

The revelation comes one day after Amazon employees published a Medium post containing their thoughts on the company’s business practices. Among 363 employees who shared their thoughts, software development engineer Max Eliaser spoke specifically about the perceived danger of the connected doorbells: “Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.”

Despite these concerns, customers are still buying Ring doorbells. Ring sales tripled over the 2019 holiday season, according to some estimates. The basic version of the doorbell is $99, making it the cheapest connected doorbell on the market, according to Mindy Woodall at Reviews.org.

Where does the disconnect between the importance of privacy and Ring’s popularity come from? Speaking to Recode in May 2019, Steve Olshansky, internet technology program manager at the Internet Society, said that there are a variety of factors at play when people integrate connected tech and mobile devices into their lives. One is an acceptance that this is the price of living in society today: “‘If I want the benefit and convenience and features, that’s the price we have to pay.’ It’s the same way we make that bargain with social media.”

In the same article, Bret Kinsella, founder of voice-control app Voicebot, had another view: “They [customers] may have heightened privacy concerns but they understand that the risk is fairly low.” IDC senior analyst Adam Wright noted that the trade-off is not exactly a fair one: “Google and Apple and Philips [smart lightbulb maker] can benefit more in a relative sense from the data by making millions of dollars more.”

Caroline Bottger is a freelance writer who writes on issues of technology, privacy, and security. 
 
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