Framing Future Drone Privacy Concerns through Amazon’s Concept Videos

This blog post is a version of a talk that I gave at the 2016 4S conference and describes work that has since been published in an article in The Journal of Human-Robot Interaction co-authored with Deirdre Mulligan entitled “These Aren’t the Autonomous Drones You’re Looking for: Investigating Privacy Concerns Through Concept Videos.” (2016). [Read online/Download PDF]

Today I’ll discuss an analysis of 2 of Amazon’s concept videos depicting their future autonomous drone service, how they frame privacy issues, and how these videos can be viewed in conversation with privacy laws and regulation.

As a privacy researcher with a human computer interaction background, I’ve become increasingly interested in how processes of imagination about emerging technologies contribute to narratives about the privacy implications of those technologies. Toda I’m discussing some thoughts emerging from a project looking at Amazon’s drone delivery service. In 2013, Amazon – the online retailer – announced Prime Air, a drone-based package delivery service. When they made their announcement, the actual product was not ready for public launch – and it’s still not available as of today. But what’s interesting is that at the time the announcement was made, Amazon also released a video that showed what the world might look like with this service of automated drones. And they released a second similar video in 2015. We call these videos concept videos.

These videos are one way that companies are strategically framing emerging technologies – what they will do, where, for whom, by what means; they’re beginning to associate values and narratives with these technologies. To surface values and narratives related to privacy present in these videos, we did a close reading of Amazon’s videos.

We’re generally interested the time time period after a technology is announced, but before it is publicly releasedDuring this time period, most people only interact with these technologies through their fictional representations of the future–in videos, advertisements, media, and so on. Looking at products during this period is interesting to understand the role that these videos play in framing technologies to become associated with certain values and narratives around privacy.

Background: Concept Videos & Design Fiction

Now creating representations of future concepts and products has a long history – including concept cars, or videos or dioramas of future technologies. Concept videos in particular as we’re conceptualizing them are short videos created by a company, showing a device or product that is not yet available for public purchase, though it might be in the short-term future. Concept videos depict what the world might be like in a few years if that device or product exists, and how people might interact with it or use it – we’ve written about this in some prior work looking at concept videos for augmented reality products.

When we are looking at the videos, we are primarily using the lens of design fiction, a concept from design researchers. Design fictions often show future scenarios, but more importantly, artifacts presented through design fiction exist within a narrative world, story, or fictional reality so that we can confront and think about artifacts in relation to a social and cultural environment. By creating fictional worlds and yet-to-be-realized design concepts, it tries to understand possible alternative futures. Design fictions also interact with broader social discourses outside the fiction. If we place corporate concept videos as design fictions, it suggests that the videos are open to interpretation and that such videos are best considered in dialogue with broader social discourses – for example those about privacy.

Yet we also have to recognize the corporate source of the videos.  The concept videos also share qualities with “vision videos,” corporate research videos that show a company’s research vision. Concept videos also contain elements of corporate advertising.

And they contain elements of video prototyping which often show short use scenarios of a technology, or simulate the use of a technology, although these are often either used internally within a company. In contrast, concept videos are public-facing artifacts.

Analyzing Amazon’s Concept Videos

Amazon released 2 concept videos – one in 2013, and a second at the end of 2015. We we can track changes in the way they frame their service. We did a close reading of the Amazon Drone videos to understand how they frame and address privacy concerns.

Below is Amazon’s first 2013 video, and let’s pay attention to how the physical drone looks, and how the video depicts its flying patterns.

So the drone has 8 rotors, is black and looks roughly like other commercially available hobbyist drones that might hold camera equipment. It then delivers the package flying from the Amazon warehouse to the recipient’s house where it’s able to land on its own.

Below is Amazon’s second 2015 video, so this time let’s pay attention again to how the physical drone looks and how the video depicts its flying patterns which we can compare against the first one.

This video’s presentation is a little more flashy – and narrated by Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson. You might also have noticed that the word “privacy” is never used in either video. Yet several changes between the videos focusing on how the physical drone looks and its flying patterns can be read as efforts by Amazon to conceptualize and address privacy concerns.

Amazon drone 1

The depiction of the drone’s physical design changes

First off, the physical design of the drone changed in shape and color. It changed from a generic black 8-rotor drone, whereas the second video has a more square-shaped drone that’s a more unique design for Amazon, and it has bright bold Amazon branding. This addresses a potential privacy concern – that people may be uncomfortable if they see an unmarked drone near them, because they don’t know what it’s doing or who it belongs to. It might conjure questions such as “is it the neighbor taking pictures?” or “Who is spying on me?” The unique design and color palette in the later video provides a form of transparency clearly identifying who the drone belongs to and its purpose.

Amazon vertical takeoff

The 2015 video depicts a vertical takeoff as the drone’s first flight phase

The second part is about its flying patterns. The first video just sort of shows the drone fly from the warehouse to the user’s house. The second video breaks this down into 3 distinct flying phases. First is a vertical helicopter-like takeoff mode, the narrator describing it flying straight up to 400 feet, suggesting the drone will be high enough to not surveil or look closely at people, nor will it fly over people’s homes when it’s taking off.

Amazon horizontal flight

In the 2015 video, the drone enters a second horizontal flight phase

The second is a horizontal flight mode, which the narrator compares to an airplane. The airplane metaphor downplays surveillance concerns – most people aren’t concerned about people in an airplane watching them in their backyards or in public space. The “drone’s-eye-view” camera in this part of the video reinforces the airplane metaphor – it only shows a horizontal view from the drone like you would out of a plane, as if suggesting the drone only sees straight ahead while it flies horizontal, and isn’t capturing video or data about people directly below it.

Amazon landing

The 2015 video depicts a third landing phase

The third is the vertical landing phase, the drone’s-eye-view camera switches to look directly down. But this video only shows the house and property of the package recipient within the camera frame – suggesting that it only visually scans the property of the package recipient, and not adjacent property, and only uses its downward facing camera in vertical mode. Together these parts of the video try to frame Amazon’s drones as using cameras in a way consistent with privacy expectations.

Policy Considerations

Beyond differences between the two videos’ framing, it’s interesting to consider the policy discourse occurring when these videos were released. In between the two videos, the US Federal Aviation Administration issued draft regulations about unmanned aerial vehicles, including stipulations that they could fly at a maximum of 400 feet. Through 2014 and 2015 a number of US State laws were passed addressing privacy, citing drones trespassing the air space over private property as a privacy harm. Other policy organizations have noted the need for transparency about who is operating a drone to enable individuals to protect themselves from potential privacy invasions.

We can also think of these video as a policy fiction. The technology shown in the video exists, but the story it tells is not a legal reality. The main thing preventing this service is that the Federal Aviation Administration currently requires a human operator within the line of sight of these types of drones.

In this light, we can read the shift in Amazon’s framing of their delivery service as something more than just updates to their design – it’s also a response to particular types of privacy concerns raised in the ongoing policy discourse around drones, and perhaps they are trying to create a sense of goodwill over privacy issues, so that the regulations can be changed in a way that allows the rest of the service. This suggests that corporate framing through concept videos is not necessarily static, but can shift and evolve throughout the design process in conversation with multiple stakeholders as an ongoing negotiation. Amazon uses these videos to frame the technology for multiple audiences – potential customers, as well as acknowledging the concerns by legislators and regulators.

Concluding Thoughts

A few ideas have emerged from the project. First, we think that close readings of concept videos are a useful activity to surface the ways company frame privacy values in relation to their products. It provides some insight into the strategy companies are using to frame their products to multiple stakeholder groups (like consumers and regulators here) – and that this process of strategic framing is an ongoing negotiation.

Second, these videos present one particular vision of the future. But they may also present  opportunities to keep the future more open by contesting the corporate vision or creating alternative futures.  We as researchers can ask what videos don’t show – technical details about how the drone works, what data it collects, how does it work in an urban setting? Stakeholders can also put forth alternate futures – such as parody concept videos (indeed there have been parody concept videos presenting alternate views of the future – people shooting down drones, stolen and dropped packages, Amazon making you buy package insurance, making it only available for expensive items, that drones will use cameras to spy on people, drone delivery in a bathroom, and reimagining it as a Netflix DVD delivery service).

Third, we think that there may be some potential in using concept videos as a more explicit type of communication tool between companies and regulators and are looking for ways we might explore that in the future.

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