Kempner: Who do you trust more with your key, Amazon or your neighbor?

4:26 p.m Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 Business

My wife and I have almost always given neighbors our house keys to keep. That’s because we are infinitely needy, and they are infinitely fantastic people. (We nicknamed one “Jesus.”)

Now, Amazon wants our keys, too.

It’s launching a service called Amazon Key, in which, at your request, it can remotely, electronically unbolt smart locks on your door so its contractors can deliver packages inside when you’re out. No more leaving boxes exposed outside. The program is going live in 37 cities including Atlanta for Amazon Prime customers who buy special camera and smart-lock setups that start at $250.

Expect this to become way more than a foot in the front door for the most relentless business in the world.

“It is really about getting access to peoples’ homes,” surmised Satish Jindel, who heads SJ Consulting Group, a Pennsylvania-based transportation and shipping consultant. “Small packages? I think that’s just the surface.”

Already Amazon is talking about providing Amazon Key customers with “easy and convenient professional service scheduling” including access for home cleaners, dog walkers and others through Amazon Home Services.

I’m sure that’s just the start.

Imagine giving the neighbors a key to your house and then realizing that you’ve given them permission to rummage through your fridge, root around in the basement and see how they can helpfully tap into your money, all for your convenience (and their profit), of course.

I like the thought of my close neighbors feeling at home in my home. But they aren’t a $136-billion mega business with a drive to consume … everything.

Giving Amazon essentially the key to our pad is a big step in our relationship, particularly since Amazon is so obsessively clingy. Are you open to the possibilities?

Here are my predictions for potential delights and troubles ahead depending on what Amazon does with Amazon Key:

1. We may never have to wait for a cable guy or plumber to show. Just set it up so the door unlocks for them, without giving them a pass code or slipping a key under the mat.

2. Eating will get even easier. Perishable groceries are a giant category of potential deliveries that you don’t want left outside to spoil. Expect Amazon to eventually do what Walmart is now testing in California: delivering food and putting it directly into your refrigerator. Amazon already has some of the food lined up: it bought Whole Foods earlier this year. Other grocers have reason to worry.

3. If you can deliver groceries straight to the refrigerator, why not prepared restaurant meals? Or stacks of lumber to the garage? (Sorry, Home Depot.)

4. We will save time. And get fatter. In theory, all that time we no longer have to spend at the grocery store could be funneled into jogging or hitting the weights. Or we could just sit on the couch longer. Heck, now we could be home and not even get up to unlock the front door for visitors.

5. Personal space and privacy? What’s that? Literally granting a company the power to come inside our homes is just another step in the erosion of boundaries. The camera set up records both images and sound when activated. Will data-hungry Amazon eventually decide to exploit what the camera records for insights on its customers? Amazon says it won’t have access to the video and customers can delete the clips from their account.

6. Employees at some of our biggest companies will face more challenges. How does this affect a company like Home Depot, which doesn’t yet have the same potentially seamless avenue for delivering and stacking lumber inside your garage? Amazon will keep hiring, of course And delivery jobs with some third-party companies could get a boost. But it’s another threat to delivery giants FedEx and Atlanta-based UPS, neither of which are currently slated to handle Amazon Key home deliveries. Officially, UPS has a policy of not crossing the threshold into customers’ homes.

7. Start your stopwatch. Hackers will certainly try to figure out ways to access the system and pop some locks. Of course, Amazon says it has put in place extensive security measures. Bad guys don’t need cyber skills to kick in doors. But that’s just so … messy.

I spoke with Brian Jones, a Georgia Tech research engineer, about other smart locks and camera systems on the market.

Homeowners can already piece together equipment that does much of what Amazon Key apparently can do, Jones told me. That includes homeowners remotely unlocking doors and having video cameras automatically record and stream what strangers are doing inside the home.

The main difference may be that Amazon can also connect with the system and apparently verify that the delivery person is legit before unlocking the door, Jones said.

That and the power of the Amazon brand might be the most important distinctions for many consumers, Jindel, the shipping consultant, told me. “Amazon is a big company. I feel more comfortable trusting them than a small guy.”

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