I’ve always wondered when smell-o-vision would make its debut in the gadget world, but I didn’t imagine that Amazon would be the company to make it happen. Given that fact, you might not be surprised to learn that its actual implementation sounds a little problematic, to say the least.
The company recently filed patents that suggest detecting a person by smell is a future possibility for its doorbell cameras. But that’s not even the extent of it. The Ring doorbells could also scan to identify “suspicious” people based on their skin texture, the way they walk, and their voice. What could possibly go wrong?
The discovery comes from Insider, which looked through more than a dozen patents recently awarded to Amazon. They found that altogether, the patents outline a network of weirdly sophisticated surveillance that sounds not at all terrifying.
One Ring patent, filed and awarded in the U.S., is titled “Neighbourhood Alert Mode.” At its core, it’s essentially community surveillance, with a dash of suburbanites-complaining-on-Nextdoor energy. Instead of your neighbour typing out a loaded post describing a person they deem to be a threat to the neighorhood — because what could go wrong there? — all they have to do is share a picture or video of someone they decide is suspicious to other Neighbourhood users within the vicinity. Ring will then prompt other video doorbells within the network to start recording the so-called suspicious person, even if they don’t approach the front door.
Although Amazon’s Ring doorbell doesn’t currently offer facial recognition like Google’s Nest camera lineup does, the capability is mentioned a handful of times in the patent, along with several biometric identifiers. From the patent:
Biometric identifiers can be physiological characteristics and/or behavioural characteristics. Physiological characteristics may be related to the shape of the body. Examples include, but are not limited to, fingerprints, palm veins, facial recognition, three-dimensional facial recognition, skin texture analysis, DNA, palm prints, hand geometry, iris recognition, retina recognition, and odor/scent recognition. Behavioural characteristics may be related to the pattern of behaviour of a person, including, but not limited to, typing rhythm, gait, and voice recognition.
This is where the smell-o-vision comes in, referred to in the patent as “odor recognition.” However, there is no real detail as to what technology would facilitate that. It’s also curious why you’d need to smell a person to understand their intentions, though the feature seems more about identifying an individual.
Insider discovered Amazon has been awarded 17 patents altogether referencing facial recognition. Amazon told both The Independent and Insider that it does not have facial recognition technology or biometrics in its devices or services. It added that any “patents filed or granted do not necessarily reflect products and services that are in development.”
Amazon’s Ring brand, which the company acquired in 2018, has a sordid history when it comes to how the cameras are used to surveil neighbourhoods. The company has worked with police departments in the past to push its home surveillance devices, not to mention its Neighbourhood app has had security issues of its own.
Amazon has previously argued against Ring products being described as “surveillance,” but that becomes specious as the company files patents mentioning capturing “partial facial images” of a person, or as Insider found in another patent, using the biometric data to aid in “criminal prosecution.” Your actual neighbours might also feel a little uncomfortable knowing your outside-facing Ring devices contribute to a private surveillance network of sorts.
If you are in the market for a doorbell camera, there are now plenty of other options. Our top pick is the Google Nest battery-powered doorbell, which offers on-device, locally-stored facial recognition that’s only shared within your network of Nest cameras.