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Amazon Gets Patent for Drone Surveillance System That Could Send the Company's Eyes Into the Sky

Xavier Harding

Amazon may soon send drones into the sky to gather data with the help of drone surveillance technology. Earlier this month, the retailer received a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for a new data-gathering system.

With this latest patent, Amazon expands its information-collecting reach. While the company rose to prominence selling information (also known as book sales), the Seattle-based mega retailer has gone deep into data collection with its always-listening virtual assistant, home-monitoring company, and a facial recognition tool it offers to law enforcement.

In the first line of Amazon’s patent, the filing would allow an “unmanned aerial vehicle” to gather data about the places it flies over. The patent notes that Amazon’s drone would obtain data about objects within and around a specified “geo-fence,” or a virtual boundary. An option to surveil only authorized areas would offer the ability to keep other areas private.

Amazon filed the patent in 2015, two years after the company first unveiled its plans for Prime Air, which included putting drones to work to deliver packages. A drone program has, clearly, remained a priority for Amazon as the company unveiled an update to its drone design earlier this month. No matter the use, delivering packages or observing the environment, Amazon will need further approval from the FAA to get its drones off the ground.

According to Amazon though, the drones purpose will be delivery first and surveillance, second—if at all. In a statement to Fortune, an Amazon spokesperson clarified the company’s interest in drones, noting that patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect the company’s current product roadmap.

“Some reports have suggested that this technology would spy or gather data on homes without authorization—to be clear, that’s not what the patent says,” said Amazon’s John Tagle. “The patent clearly states that it would be an opt-in service available to customers who authorize monitoring of their home.”

Amazon’s patent can be read in its entirety here.

Amazon’s info-gathering history

Though gathering information by drone may raise an eyebrow or two on the privacy front (it wasn’t long ago that we learned Amazon employees were listening to our conversations with Alexa), information-gathering is now a prominent part of the company’s DNA. When Amazon announced the Amazon Echo smart speaker in 2014, the device promised a virtual assistant for the home that could be summoned simply by calling out its name.

The trade-off came in user privacy: for Amazon’s assistant Alexa to hear you, the device has to always be listening. Customers make a similar trade-off when they use one of Amazon’s Ring products. The Ring line consists of home security cameras, video doorbells, and security systems that send information through Amazon’s servers.

Broaden the scope from consumer tech and there’s even more evidence of Amazon’s data collection leanings. In May 2018, the ACLU learned that Amazon markets their facial recognition tool, Rekognition, to law enforcement. The ACLU noted that officers in Washington County, Ore. and Orlando, Fla. had been using Amazon’s facial recognition tech since 2017.

The Washington County Sheriff’s office has used the technology to help in their investigations. “We were able to index more than 300,000 photo records within 1-2 days, and the identification time of suspects went from 2-3 days down to minutes,” the Oregon police force noted on Amazon’s Rekognition customers page.

It’s too early to tell how Amazon could make use of a network of drones for potential surveillance purposes. The company could very well sit on the patent and do nothing, or the complete opposite and watch from the skies. Now that Amazon has officially been granted its four-year-old patent, we may not have to wait long to find out.