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Amazon Key's big privacy test is now in your hands

The delivery service lets itself into your home, and that has some people freaked out. Amazon, though, may have a way past that anxiety.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
5 min read
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A screenshot of one of tamer social-media responses to Amazon Key.

Blair Herter via Twitter

Much of the public response to Amazon Key's debut was merciless.

People took to social media two weeks ago to deride the new in-home delivery service as an infringement of their privacy and a way for thieves or murderers to walk into their living rooms. A columnist for the Washington Post -- which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos -- called the service "Silicon Valley at its most out-of-touch."

"Better to strategize around postal schedules than be assaulted by a person hiding in one's home!" the columnist wrote.

The criticism highlights the hurdles Amazon faces in starting the service, which officially launches Wednesday. Any bad experiences with Key could damage Amazon's reputation.

Lost in the wave of negativity is the potential the program holds for Amazon to build out and control a new spin on commerce. If the company convinces enough customers to adopt Amazon Key, that could have a big impact on how people shop and use all kinds of professional services, including dog walkers, maid services and food delivery.

"You've got to give credit to Amazon and even Walmart these days for trying to innovate," Forrester e-commerce analyst Sucharita Mulpuru said.

Straight-to-fridge deliveries

Amazon Key uses the company's new Cloud Cam security camera, a smart door lock and the new Key app to grant someone temporary access. A delivery person can unlock your front door using his phone, slide in a package, then lock the door again. The idea is to prevent packages from being stolen from the front stoop or have them get soaked in the rain.

The service will launch in 37 US metro areas and is only available to Amazon Prime members. The new hardware starts at $250 and includes free installation.

In the coming months, Amazon said it will let customers schedule in-home visits from tens of thousands of local businesses through Amazon Home Services, so you can schedule a cleaning service or plumber while you're out.

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A survey from late October asked people if they'd be comfortable using services like Amazon Key.

Morning Consult

Amazon Key is likely the biggest effort to bring in-home delivery and services to the mainstream, but it's not the first. Walmart is testing delivery of groceries right to your fridge, and another company, Latch, makes smart door locks to allow in-home delivery and services in apartment buildings. This year, Latch partnered with Jet.com, which is owned by Walmart, to bring its locks to 1,000 New York City apartment buildings for in-lobby deliveries and easier resident and guest access.

Forrester's Mulpuru said there are lots of hurdles to Amazon Key getting adopted. Along with the upfront cost and hardware setup, customers will have to get used to the idea that Amazon delivery workers will have access to their homes. Also, there are loads of variables that get introduced once a delivery person can open your front door: What if my cat runs out the door? What if the door breaks during a delivery? What if a hacker gains access to my new smart lock or the lock fails?

Watch this: Here's how Amazon's new in-home delivery service works

Likely for all those reasons and more, 68 percent of US adults surveyed by Morning Consult in late October said they were uncomfortable giving delivery workers access to their homes. The older the respondents got, the more likely they were to dislike the service, with 83 percent of people 65 and older saying they were uncomfortable with the idea.

"You do not have to have this to have a great Amazon experience," Mulpuru said. "That's why I think adoption of this won't be that fast."

Amazon has previously said it's worked hard to offer many protections for consumers -- such as the security camera and notifications throughout the delivery process -- so they have peace of mind using the new service.

"Amazon Key will make customers' lives easier in many ways -- not just through delivery," a company spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.


A demonstration of Amazon Key in action at a Brooklyn bed and breakfast.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 'privacy paradox'

There's reason to believe that the public's current skepticism won't be a significant hurdle toward adoption.

Cliff Lampe, a professor at University of Michigan's School of Information who focuses on social computing, said the negative social-media response was hardly surprising. That's because people tend to talk a big game when it comes to privacy but in practice are much more lax --  a concept known as the "privacy paradox." Typically, privacy tends to be a vague notion that's easily pushed aside for concrete benefits, like easier deliveries, he said.

"You see a lot of people expressing concerns about privacy with the service," Lampe added, "but a common finding in my field is that convenience trumps privacy every time."

He mentioned how Facebook's News Feed was once maligned as a breach of privacy, but led to greater engagement and use of the social platform. Also, it's now routine to hand over your credit card number to an online retailer, but that wasn't always the case.

That being said, Lampe noted that positive word-of-mouth will be critical for Amazon Key to become a success. People will buy into the service if they hear from friends and neighbors about its conveniences, and not potential abuses using the service. Also, Amazon Key will have to offer enough benefits to justify the upfront cost and privacy tradeoff, he added.

Early signs seem positive from customers' preorders, at least according to one company doing the installations of the Amazon Key door locks and cameras in the 20 of the 37 metro areas it's available.

"We've been pleased with the number of jobs we're winning in the cities we're in," said HelloTech CEO Richard Wolpert, adding that the consumer response so far has met his expectations. "We're seeing enough of a signal that there are customers out there that this is exactly what they want."

The number of converts is expected to increase, Latch CEO Luke Schoenfelder said, especially after Uber and Airbnb helped normalize ideas of sharing your home with strangers or getting in a car with them. How big could that market be? That's harder to say, especially because there will always be a segment of people who won't want this service because of privacy, pets or other reasons.

"It will absolutely require a shift in social norms," he said.

The potential for future services could be huge, he added, with the possibility of a food delivery company someday integrating with your Lyft or Uber ride to schedule a hot, plated meal on your dinner table ready right when you walk in.

Sure, that might sound incredible. But you'll need to give up just a little more of your privacy to get there.

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