The Ring Always Home Drone: A Ridiculous Way for Amazon to Map Your House
As if late 2020 wasn’t exhausting enough, Amazon has announced the Ring Always Home Cam, a flying camera drone for your house. It is sublimely dumb, a supposedly innovative tool that is neither innovative nor useful. It is a home-security device that can easily be defeated by a cat. It may also be a not-very-sneaky way for Amazon to map out the interior of your house so they can gaze ever more deeply into your personal desires and insecurities.
This chunky flying personal fan that goes BRRR contains multitudes.
The Ring Always Home Cam is a T-shaped drone that is secured in a docking base. The camera is obscured until the drone lifts off and begins to fly, which it can do for a maximum of five minutes. Once it begins flying, it streams video back to your phone, allowing you to monitor the current status of the home you’ve left behind.
Per Ring’s own words, this flying camera is thus a convenient way for you to check if you’ve left the oven on or left a window open. You can check on anything in your house with ease (as long as you’ve left all your interior doors open). In the interest of indoor safety, the Ring Always Home cam has propellers encased in plastic, which will prevent them from whacking your loved ones in the face.
As I mentioned above, the drone does go BRRR, or perhaps BZZZ. Amazon claims that this totally bog-standard aspect of multirotor drone design is a special feature called “privacy you can hear,” a supposedly comforting catchphrase I find fascinating because it makes no sense if you think about it for more than the 0.1 seconds required to read it. The world’s greatest legal, ethical, and technological scholars have strived for generations to define what “privacy” is and what it consists of — without success. And now, Amazon has come along to inform us that whatever the hell privacy is, it’s something you can hear.
I can, faintly, hear a privacy ethicist weeping somewhere far away.
Let us move on.
The Hidden Cost of Amazon’s Surveillance Tech
A new drone from Amazon subsidiary Ring raises familiar questions
You may assume you can personally fly the Amazon Ring Drone around your house — from distant climes, even! — with your phone. This is incorrect. The Ring Always Home Cam requires you to provide it with a map of your house before you can use it. When activated, your personal camera-carrying hairdryer will then eerily hover through a predefined path in the house, letting you look at stuff in glistening 1080p video while it proceeds. This on-rails aspect of the Ring Always Home Cam was (unlike the drone itself) a smart move on Amazon’s part, even though it will doubtless bum out potential customers.
That’s because people are terrible at flying drones, and they are especially terrible at flying them indoors. Human-piloted drones end up tangled irretrievably in your grandma’s hair (time to get out the clippers!), sploosh dramatically into boiling pots of macaroni and cheese, and knock over irreplaceable family heirlooms. Amazon knows that if it lets your meaty and inept hands fly it, you will knock over a priceless Ming vase within 2.5 seconds and then complain vehemently about it to your other bourgeois friends on Twitter.
This was clever on Amazon’s part, but it has some fatal flaws. Although Ring claims in an oddly low-budget ad that you can use the camera drone to frighten burglars into submission, this disturbing feature only works if the drone happens to traverse where the burglar is at the exact right moment.
In the interest of indoor safety, the Ring Always Home cam has propellers encased in plastic, which will prevent them from whacking your loved ones in the face.
The drone’s autonomous flight path also assumes that you aren’t going to move anything after you set it up. This is a foolish bet to make because we are human beings, much less unfathomably stressed human beings attempting to function during a pandemic. Your husband places his extremely expensive digital camera on the edge of the kitchen counter, and you forget to reset the flight path? Boom, crash, sucks to be you. Rearranged all the furniture during a harrowing existential crisis and then forgot to update the drone before you left for the weekend? Goodbye, sweet wine glasses!
While Amazon notes that the drone has object detection capabilities, these technologies are not particularly trustworthy on really expensive consumer drones, much less something Amazon is intentionally producing on the cheap. And no one has, far as I know, successfully engineered a mini-drone that can evade an unsupervised Jack Russell terrier with murder in its heart. Hide your tiny glass deer and your breakable electronics. Secure your pets.
I know that many of you are horrified by the dystopian, panopticon potential of the Ring Always Home Cam. You can probably relax, at least a little. The Amazon Always Home Cam drone is not a great tool for spying on people. There are better and more subtle tools for doing that, and Amazon and its tech giant brethren already make them. Amazon’s Alexa home speaker keeps a copy of everything that it records, and so does Apple’s Siri. Amazon’s Ring smart doorbell is eminently easy to hack, partners with police and Amazon employees reportedly watch the footage.
If you want to monitor multiple parts of your house (or someone else’s) without being detected, you can do that too: The creeps and secret agents of the world have already perfected the art of placing teeny-tiny streaming cameras in places you would never think to look for them. Even Amazon itself sells oodles of them. And despite what Ring founder Jamie Siminoff says about the Ring serving as a cheaper alternative to bugging every room in one’s house, I doubt serving the low-income market is really what Amazon has in mind here.
The novel part of the Ring Always Home Cam is, of course, that it’s a mobile camera that follows people, a concept that is inherently more invasive in some respects than a stationary camera, even one you don’t know is there. But it will only be good for spying on someone who, 1. is already in your home, 2. is intimidated enough not to swat the drone away, 3. happens to be somewhere along the pre-programmed drone flight route and 4. is not going anywhere for the drone’s wimpy battery life of five minutes.
You may assume you can personally fly the Amazon Ring Drone around your house — from distant climes, even! — with your phone. This is incorrect.
While I could imagine a controlling parent or abusive partner using the Ring to periodically check on their victims, even that ethically horrendous customer would probably be better served by a bunch of tiny stationary creep-cams scattered throughout the house instead. This also goes for anyone who might try to hack into the Ring Always Home Cam: Unlike other smart home sensors, the subjects of the creeping will probably notice if their drone lifts unbidden into the air. The Ring Drone Camera is (like most drones) a remarkably convoluted way to creep on people.
So why, exactly, did Amazon make this thing? Perhaps it really is one of those weird ideas that supposedly brilliant tech companies cough up — like hairballs — on a regular basis, something Amazon will politely pretend never happened a year from now. But nothing in life is free (even terrible drones), and I suspect there is something sinister about the Ring Always Home Cam. That’s because while it probably isn’t much good at monitoring your house or spying on your neighbors, it will be great at spying on you.
There is precedent here. Think back to a hundred million years ago, back to 2017. A small kerfuffle emerged after Reuters reported that iRobot — makers of the Roomba autonomous vacuuming robot — were using their device to make maps of people’s homes in the interest of improving “smart home technology,” without securing the consent of the hapless vacuum-owners first. iRobot’s CEO sort of denied it, the kerfuffle died down. And then in 2018, iRobot and Google announced they were partnering on using Roomba data to make even better maps of people’s houses.
I do not have confirmation of this. But it is highly plausible that Amazon is up to something similar with the Always Home Cam. Consider that you have to give it a reasonably accurate map of your house just to get the device up and running in the first place. It’s impossible to opt out of this process. Then, as you send your camera drone off to whoosh (audibly, please remember that it does so audibly, so it’s fine) around your house, the drone records video, which it shares both with you and with its Amazon overlords. Amazon will doubtless claim, when someone reveals that this is what the Ring Always Home Cam is up to, that it is using this information to help you (because it loves you). That is, obviously, bullshit.
Amazon can use mobile video and maps to learn all kinds of juicy things about you, from how much furniture you have to your current shameful stack of unread intellectual magazines to your torn and grotesque underpants. It can then use that information to manipulate you — an already caged pandemic-times animal, bored and frightened — into buying things.
That’s dark. And that’s also vintage, classical-era Amazon.com reasoning.
This is, in the end, the most creepy thing about the Ring Always Home Cam. It is yet another ridiculous device with minimal apparent benefit to the user that Amazon will, somehow, convince a non-zero number of people to pay money for.