Experts raise privacy concerns over Amazon fleet surveillance

Amazon said its van monitoring system is designed solely for driver safety. But many industry experts have concerns regarding the program and its wider privacy implication.

With the installation of AI-enabled cameras in its delivery fleet set to record each vehicle's interior and exterior environment, Amazon has expanded its ability to capture a massive amount of America's everyday activity.

The monitoring system has privacy advocates pushing back against Amazon's plans and how it might use this data. Even federal lawmakers have demanded more information from the company.

In a March 3rd letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote, "Turning Amazon's increasingly prevalent delivery vehicles into roaming video recording devices could dramatically decrease Americans' ability to work, move, and assemble in public without being surveilled."

Amazon has defended the initiative, saying the monitoring system will help with driver safety -- and nothing more.

Yet such statements haven't allayed concerns or answered all questions. Amazon's size, as well as the scope of its monitoring capabilities, have some industry experts questioning whether Amazon and businesses in general are going too far with their surveillance activities.

"This is really disconcerting. If you look at the ways that information can be collected without our willing and informed consent, it's a very asymmetric world," said Matt Stamper, EVOTEK CISO and president of the San Diego chapter of the ISACA.

Amazon fleet surveillance is all about safety, the company says

Amazon's on-vehicle system uses AI-powered cameras from Netradyne, a San Diego-based company that makes fleet management software. In an emailed statement responding to TechTarget questions, an Amazon spokesperson stressed that the company's new vehicle monitoring system is all about delivery safety.

"Netradyne cameras are used to help keep drivers and the communities where we deliver safe," the statement says. "We piloted the technology from April to October 2020 on over two million miles of delivery routes and the results produced remarkable driver and community safety improvements -- accidents decreased 48 percent, stop sign violations decreased 20 percent, driving without a seatbelt decreased 60 percent, and distracted driving decreased 45 percent. Don't believe the self-interested critics who claim these cameras are intended for anything other than safety."

Amazon delivery vans
Amazon will outfit its delivery vans with interior and exterior cameras.

The company also provided comments from three drivers who spoke to the system's benefits. Amazon did not provide the drivers' full names, nor did it respond to several other questions, including whether it plans to store the recordings.

Individual privacy rights vs. corporate interests

Amazon monitoring its drivers is not new. In fact, other transportation companies also monitor their drivers using cameras, GPS and telemetry. And companies have a long history of monitoring their employees in the workplace, with courts upholding their rights to use technology to do so.

But industry analysts, researchers and privacy experts said they believe Amazon's plans with Netradyne cameras raise a number of issues -- some new, others longstanding.

To start, Amazon's plans have renewed discussion about where, why and how much surveillance should be used in the workplace.

"The issue of monitoring drivers is a complex topic, just like the surveillance of workers in the factory," said Robin Gaster, president of Incumetrics, a data and program evaluation consultancy, and author of Behemoth, Amazon Rising: Power and Seduction in the Age of Amazon. "You want to have a safe workplace, but now in the 21st century, Amazon is able to track workers by the microsection. And there's a qualitative difference between setting [productivity] targets for people and expecting them to work hard [versus] having a system that is effectively designed to be run by algorithms."

The use of such technology -- by Amazon as well as others -- also raises questions about how companies use the data it captures.

Certainly, this makes Amazon the largest physical surveillance enterprise ever, at least outside of China. The privacy implications cannot be overstated.
French CaldwellDisruptive technology, risk and security analyst

For example, could companies use the data to scrutinize every minute of someone's workday? And would that violate a worker's privacy?

What if, one researcher asked, a surveillance system recorded a diabetic giving him or herself a shot of insulin?

Another asked if companies could, in this age of widescale work-from-home, be using monitoring tools on a worker's BYOD laptop to capture the employee's family's online searches as well as its worker's?

Access to such activities could indeed help with safety or cybersecurity, experts said, but they also wondered whether those benefits outweigh workers' privacy rights. Where is the line between individual rights and corporate interests?

"What if an employee is doing something personal to them but that matters to the company?" Stamper asked. "It's a bit of a minefield of competing organizational priorities and challenges between privacy, security and safety, and any number of different elements."

The Amazon fleet surveillance also raises new questions, such as what else these monitoring programs capture beyond the company's own employees and its vehicles.

"Certainly, this makes Amazon the largest physical surveillance enterprise ever, at least outside of China. The privacy implications cannot be overstated," said French Caldwell, an analyst with The Analyst Syndicate, with a focus on disruptive technology, risk and security. "This level of continuous mobile surveillance of business districts and residential neighborhoods makes the Google street cams look very tame."

While Amazon claims the fleet surveillance is for safety, the consent form that drivers must sign tells a different story. In addition to interior van cameras, there are external facing cameras on the front and side of the vehicles, according to Caldwell. These will ultimately record pedestrians, homes and other vehicles and collect data on information like license plates, Caldwell said.

"With facial recognition software, location data collected through Amazon apps on smartphones, and other personal information that Amazon collects, Amazon could establish a near real-time surveillance of its customers and their activities," Caldwell said.

Amazon vans on east barnet road
Experts warn the Amazon delivery fleet could surveil neighborhoods, homes and children.

Experts have made the logical leap and have asked whether companies like Amazon could -- or will -- monetize their huge data stores and sell new services, such as location and tracking services.

"You might be able to sell a service, like 'locate Fred' at any given time," said Fred Cate, vice president for research at Indiana University and a cybersecurity expert specializing in information privacy and security law issues.

The possibility of these services has generated pushback. The nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future, for example, has launched a campaign against the Amazon monitoring program -- which it called "the largest expansion of corporate surveillance in human history."

"Amazon wants to turn their massive delivery fleet into an army of mobile Ring surveillance cameras. And they'll violate everyone's basic rights by constantly collecting and analyzing footage of our neighborhoods, our homes, and our children," Evan Greer, the group's deputy director shared in a press release. "There are essentially no laws in place to limit what commercial purposes Amazon can use this enormous trove of video footage for."

Corporate strategy, regulation and the future of privacy rights

What organizations can or will do with data from surveillance-type technologies -- from in-store trackers to municipal cameras to locational data feeds -- remains unknown.

It's not hard to imagine the potential, however. Organizations already use technology to collect significant amounts of information, including video. Facial recognition software and smartphones could then be used to identify individuals in monitored locations, while analytics provides personal details on each individual.

To date, there hasn't been meaningful debate on that possibility, Indiana University's Cate said.

"Do we want to live in a world where everything we say or do is captured by somebody? Maybe it is okay, but what bothers me is we're getting to that point without any thoughtful discussion about it," he said.

Moreover, Cate and other experts said existing regulations don't address such potentials.

"The default for many companies is often to take as much data as they can get and then figure out what they can do with it," said Robert Cattanach, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, where he advises clients on cybersecurity, compliance and regulatory law.

Cattanach said he expects some test cases will emerge that sharpen the focus on when and where to draw the line between their use and privacy rights.

"Amazon at some point is going to have to answer to somebody about what data they're capturing and what they're going to do with it," he said. "The challenge then will be to identify, 'What are the guardrails we need?'"

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