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Beyond Orwell

The Amazon Ring doorbell camera can do more than let you know who’s ringing the bell… Image credit: Amazon

Back in 1948 George Orwell imagined a future (1984, nice swapping of digits!) where a Big Brother would be monitoring and controlling our lives. Since those times, technology (both in sensing and communications) has made giant leaps and being monitored is “the normal” way of life, independently of all the talks about privacy.

My smartphone has to know where I am (to get the call) and so does the network. Along with it, several of the apps on my smartphone “know” where I am (ever forgotten the place where you took a photo? Just tap on the photo and you get the time it was taken, where it was taken … and more!). What about the black box in my car, installed by the insurance company, or the car navigation systems that constantly updates the record of my whereabouts in the electronic key of my car? What about those safety cameras around picking up my face, credit card payments, interactions on he web…?

The list is quite long.

Now consider the appliances you have at home, and Alexa (or others) interacting with them and with you. I doubt Orwell imagined all of this.

Now I discover that Ring, the camera on the door step of 400,000+ homes (according to estimate going back to January 2020) can share a live stream with police to increase home security. A trial is going on in Jackson, Mississippi, as part of the Jackson Real Time Crime Centre. Next step, I suspect, would be to have image recognition software automatically performing real time surveillance.

The trial is based on opt-in by Ring owners and that is ok. The problem is that those cameras are not just picking up images of people ringing the bell but provide a wide angle view that in many cases will pick up people walking on the side-walk. Hence, your whereabouts may be tracked by law enforcement because “other” people have opted-in the trial.

Personally I would not have any problem with this, as I mentioned I am already tracked by plenty of sensors and this additional one will lnot really make any difference to me. You may have, of course, a different opinion …

Amazon has already declared that they have nothing to do with this trial. Nevertheless they are providing the enabling technology (the Ring) and you can be sure that as something become possible, someone will leverage on it.

All in all I value security over privacy but I appreciate that others may have different sets of values. In Singapore theft are unheard of, not because people are better than in other places (people averages out everywhere) but because committing a theft and getting caught is a certainty. On October 15th, 2020, a theft of grocery vouchers from letter boxes in a condominium in Singapore was considered so important to make the headlines in the Straits Time and, of course, the article duly informed that the perpetrators have been arrested!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.