Walmart’s newest commercial promises “Fridgetopia.” In it a mother and daughter watch a live video feed of a Walmart worker who unlocks their house with an app, carries a Walmart bag to their refrigerator, and stocks it with healthy foods. It’s all filmed from a camera on the worker’s chest, giving the video the eerie vibe of police body camera footage—if the police officer were holding a bag of grapes instead of a gun.
The in-fridge delivery service, unveiled last week, is coming to Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Vero Beach, Florida this fall. The service is the next step in Walmart’s escalating delivery war with Amazon. The two retail megaliths have been competing to give the fastest, most convenient delivery service.
This is the new wave of camera-enabled delivery services, recently unveiled by the likes of Walmart and Amazon, as well as some smaller competitors. Sometimes strapped to a drone, sometimes to a worker’s chest, these cameras will roll while delivering groceries, fast food, and small packages. The programs could be convenient, or a privacy nightmare.
As service becomes more intrusive, both companies have introduced programs that incorporate cameras in or around the customer’s home. The cameras might mean peace of mind to Walmart customers nervous about a stranger delivering food to their kitchen. But the fast-moving field of home surveillance devices also opens the programs to potential ethical and legal dilemmas, especially if the companies keep the footage their cameras capture, or turn that footage over to law enforcement as some home surveillance companies have already begun doing.
“Often these companies will say in their terms of service that ‘we may use your data to improve our products and services.’ That sounds really benign, but what we’ve learned, certainly in the case of [Amazon] Alexa, is that means they’ll take snippets of your audio,” Jeremy Gillula, tech projects director at the Electronic Frontiers Foundation told The Daily Beast.
“They may try to disassociate it from you and remove your username or email address, but just the same they’ll have actual people listen to it so they can transcribe it. So I hope you didn’t say anything embarrassing, because that may become fodder for these people to laugh at.”
A Walmart spokesperson declined to comment on whether Walmart would retain the videos, and whether customers would be able to review delivery footage after it was recorded, adding that it would unveil more details closer to the fall release date. Walmart piloted the program for five months in New Jersey before announcing its expansion this month.
“We constantly strive to earn and maintain our customers’ trust, which includes protecting their privacy,” the spokesperson continued. “Our data collection falls in line with the standard Walmart policies in place.” The spokesperson said Walmart would collect and analyze information for customer service reasons, not to amass information on the insides of homes.
Walmart’s “standard” data-collection policies haven’t always been stellar. In 2018, the company filed a patent for a shopping cart that would read a customer’s biometric data and provide feedback to Walmart based on the customer’s body temperature, heart rate, walking speed, and grip on the cart. In May, the company filed a patent for “systems and methods of capturing and distributing imagine content captured through unmanned aircraft systems” which would let the company watch video feeds from drones in real time.
Patents are not a guarantee that a company will make a product. But Walmart’s interest in video drones follows Amazon’s long-standing plans to make deliveries by unmanned aircraft.
Last week, Amazon revealed its latest plans for drone deliveries. The new program would deliver lightweight packages up to 15 miles with autonomous drones that fly to a pre-programmed destination. The drones would use a combination of depth cameras, thermal cameras, and sonar to avoid crashes, according to the Verge. Amazon would use machine learning to improve the drones’ crash avoidance.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s video retention policies, but said the company would use the same security measures it uses on other products. Some Amazon products, like its Alexa home assistant, have faced criticism for making and retaining recordings of customers’ voices. The company already offers a delivery service that allows workers to leave packages in customers’ garages using a special lock, although the workers do not wear body cameras and stop short of going in customers’ refrigerators.
Gillula said the companies could take steps to optimize user privacy. Amazon could discard all footage that didn’t involve a drone crash, he said, letting them learn from accidents while still wiping the video archives from most flights. Walmart, meanwhile, could make its videos accessible through an encrypted key that only the customer could access, although Gillula was skeptical that the company would take those measures.
“Of course a company is unlikely to do this because they want to know what’s going on inside your house,” he said. “Even if they’re not doing it to market things at you, they’re probably doing it from a liability perspective. I doubt their lawyers would say ‘it’s fine that you don’t have access to the video except when the customer gives it to you.’”
Amazon says its forthcoming drone program will be unpiloted, but at least one other robotic delivery services has admitted to using remote workers to pilot its vehicles.
Kiwibot, a food delivery startup, uses miniature robots (like coolers with wheels) to drive meals and snacks short distances. A hit on the University of California, Berkeley campus, Kiwibot advertises itself as a high-tech, artificial intelligence company. Its website shows detailed interfaces that allow the robots to identify pedestrians and avoid running into obstacles.
“Unique and pragmatic A.I approach, our robots work from day ONE anywhere in the world,” the site advertises.
Unspoken in these marketing materials is the human labor behind a Kiwibot delivery. Rather than use artificial intelligence for the robots’ 300-meter deliveries, Kiwibot employs a team of workers in Colombia to pilot the robots remotely. The workers make less than $2 an hour (above local minimum wage) to map new “waypoints” for the robots every five to 10 seconds, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month.
“The company bristles at comparisons of this to operating remote-control toy cars, calling it ‘parallel autonomy,’” the Chronicle reported.
The A.I. sales pitch can gloss over the surveillance technology and the real people involved; one testimonial on the company’s website celebrates that, with Kiwibot there’s “no need to tip, interact with people, or wait too long.”
Small-time delivery companies—and even grocery megachains—might not be trying to get into the surveillance game. But that doesn’t mean the footage they record is safe.
“Data breaches are very sadly a dime a dozen,” Gillula said. “The latest was Customs and Border Patrol, which had a contractor who was breached. All sorts of information about travelers was leaked on the dark web. While these companies don’t like data breaches, and will do what they can to prevent them, at some level there are two types of companies: those who know they’ve been breached and those who don’t realize it yet. It’s unfortunately just a matter of time.”
Some home surveillance companies turn over their data willingly.
Ring, an Amazon-owned “smart” doorbell company, has become a favorite tool of law enforcement, with police departments offering free Ring doorbells to locals (sometimes buying the devices with public money), CNET reported this month. More than 50 police departments have struck partnerships with Ring over the past two years, the report found.
Although the video-enabled doorbells are only meant to surveil the area directly outside the user’s front door, they routinely pick up home interiors, neighbors’ properties, and public streets and sidewalks, the Intercept reported, adding that police have the ability to request people’s Ring footage remotely.
The result is a surveillance goldmine, easily accessible to law enforcement. “What happens if you refuse” police requests for footage, the Intercept asked. “Will you merely be a bad Ring Neighbor, or an uncooperative witness?”
As they fly over neighborhoods and traipse through living rooms on the way to the kitchen, camera-enabled delivery services will inevitably see something suspicious. But exactly what they’ll do with the footage—either voluntarily, or in cooperation with a warrant—remains unclear.