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Walmart and Amazon want to see inside your house. Should you let them?

Sam Dean, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The war for the e-commerce shopper is fought on the battlefield of convenience. One-click ordering, same-day delivery, automatic toilet paper refills: There's no pain point so small someone won't pay to do away with it.

Although shopping online may be hassle-free, getting those orders delivered can be tricky. To solve that problem, Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc., the two largest retailers in the U.S., are now offering to send delivery people inside your house to safely deposit your packages indoors and your groceries inside your fridge.

To calm fears that delivery people might get up to no good, both companies are promising to let you watch the deliveries happen live on video. There's one catch: Amazon and Walmart get to hang on to that video too.

Sound like a good deal?

With little formal accountability or transparency on how these companies store, process and monetize the video and audio recordings of your home, privacy experts are concerned that consumers could be signing up for more than they realize.

"The surveillance society we have tiptoed into is going to need a set of social norms that are today still awkward and unclear," said Jules Polonetsky, chief executive of the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit that studies privacy issues around new technologies. "If we don't set some of those lines, it's likely to have negative repercussions."

 

Those risks include having sensitive home data -- including voice and video recordings and codes for the front door's smart lock -- hacked and released online, or having the same private data subject to search by law enforcement.

More prosaically, with the advent of computer vision analytics, which offer the ability to extract consumer insights from millions of hours of video, the companies behind these smart-home services could use imagery from your living room to improve their ad targeting or as raw material to train their computer vision algorithms.

"It's certainly not the case that any of these companies are out to do something malicious," said Jeremy Gillula, tech policy director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But you don't have to be malicious to invade someone's privacy."

The business case for providing these services is clear. The two largest retailers in the country are offering in-home delivery programs -- Key by Amazon and InHome by Walmart -- to woo customers who don't want to have valuable purchases or perishable groceries left on their porches, prey to package thieves or raccoons.

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