New Amazon Spying Scandal—Your Home Videos Are Being Watched

After the privacy backlash over people listening into recordings captured by Amazon, Apple and Google devices, the latest issue will create even more concern. It turns out that Amazon’s workers are viewing video clips from one of its home CCTV services to improve its AI analytics. “Despite Amazon’s insistence that all the clips are provided voluntarily,” Bloomberg reported, “teams have picked up activity homeowners are unlikely to want shared, including rare instances of people having sex.”

The scandal embroils Amazon’s indoor Cloud Cam service, which “features everything you need to help keep your home safe, with its always-ready motion detection feature helping to capture activities right from the start.” Clearly, that automatic motion detection needs a little human assistance to teach it the tricks of the trade.

According to Bloomberg, employees in India and Romania review clips sent by customers where the AI has triggered mistakenly. The purpose of sending the clips is to improve the AI, but it is isn’t clear that humans do so manually by marking up the footage for the system. In any video analytics service, false alerts undermine user confidence and cause annoyance. They also lead to excess video being captured and streamed, which incurs cost. Bad news all round. But if the spin side is the viewing of private videos, then maybe not such a terrible alternative.

Ultimately, the focus of most video AI intrusion analytics is to identify people and vehicles, distinguishing those from environmental conditions—wind or rain, animals, or changing light conditions. Unlike the sensors built into cameras which rely on heat signatures, video analytics relies on pixels or footage and training. For indoor cameras, the analytics will focus on accurate people detection.

“At one point, on a typical day,” according to Bloomberg, “some Amazon auditors were each annotating about 150 video recordings, which were typically 20 to 30 seconds long.” This was according to a number of employees, all of whom elected to remain anonymous, one can assume out of fear for their jobs. Although the claim is that all clips are sent by users for troubleshooting, it’s not clear why some of those clips would then contain inappropriate content.

“We take privacy seriously and put Cloud Cam customers in control of their video clips,” a company spokesperson told Bloomberg, claiming that only incorrect clips were ever viewed, and everything else remains private and viewable only by the customers themselves.

But this will be a nasty surprise for customers. “Nowhere in the Cloud Cam user terms and conditions does Amazon explicitly tell customers that human beings are training the algorithms behind their motion detection software.”

Unsurprisingly, the review operation is tightly controlled, with heavy restrictions on access and communication devices. “But that hasn’t stopped other employees from passing footage to non-team members,” one of the whistleblowers told Bloomberg.

As more of us turn to cloud-based CCTV platforms, including the likes of Amazon’s Ring and Google’s Nest, to secure our homes, this issue will become more prevalent. As with voice assistants, what was deemed “acceptable” in the earlyish stages will not work with scale. As ever with such privacy stories, genies don’t return to bottles and we can expect fairly immediate changes to how this operation works. There will also now be a focus on competing solutions and how they operate. If the voice assistant experience is anything to go by, dominoes are about to come tumbling down.

For the consumer AI industry, this is the perennial challenge: How to collate AI training data and improve the underlying algorithms without invading the privacy of the consumers capturing the data? Asking permission is one way—but without an incentive, why would anyone agree? And if too small a group are selected or opt in, then the data is not representative. It remains unclear how Apple and Google and Amazon will deal with voice assistant training, and the video debate has now only just started.

This isn’t the first scandal to hit Amazon over consumer CCTV. Its acquired Ring service has been criticised over its seemingly close relationships with police forces in the U.S., over reports of data sharing and linking neighbouring devices. This next chapter, though, could eclipse those stories for the strength of user concerns.

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I am the Founder/CEO of Digital Barriers—a company providing advanced surveillance tech to the defence, national security, counter-terrorism and critical infrastructur

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