Amazon's newest acquisition, smart doorbell startup Ring, made a smart move to fend off Google (AMZN, GOOG)

jeff bezos

Amazon confirmed on Tuesday that it is planning to acquire smart doorbell startup Ring, which lets homeowners talk to visitors using their phones. The reported price tag was around $1 billion (£715 million).

Amazon hasn't gone into much detail about why it acquired Ring, but the company is making a bigger play in smart homes. It acquired another home security system, Blink, in December. It's also launched Amazon Key, a smart lock and camera combination which lets you allow anyone from deliverymen to cleaners into your home.

Only a month before Amazon announced the acquisition, it looks like Ring updated its privacy policy with a hint about a big new feature: facial recognition.

This is what the updated policy says, emphasis ours:

"Where permitted by applicable law, you may choose to use additional functionality in your Ring product that, through video data from your device, can recognize facial characteristics of familiar visitors. For example, you may want to receive different notifications from your Ring Doorbell depending on whether a visitor is a stranger or a member of your household. If you choose to activate this feature, we obtain certain facial feature information about the visitors you ask your Ring product to recognize. We require your explicit consent before you can take advantage of this feature."

It was probably only a matter of time. Ring has something like 70% of the US smart doorbell market, according to CCS Insight research from August, but that's at risk from a major rival in the form of Google's Nest Hello doorbell.

Ring doorbell

Late in 2017, Google announced that the Nest Hello doorbell would come with facial recognition, giving the firm an important edge over Ring. The "Familiar Face Alerts" feature sends alerts to your phone when someone you know turns up at your door. Equally, if a stranger arrives, Nest will ask if you know the person.

That version of Nest Hello is set to ship in March 2018 — and Ring's privacy policy update looks like it's trying to stave off its most dangerous competition. What isn't clear yet is whether Ring, like Nest, might charge for facial recognition through a subscription.

Facial recognition could work well with Amazon Key

Amazon Key launched last October, and a doorbell with facial recognition could be a nice addition to the service.

Currently, a courier trying to deliver a parcel to a house that has Amazon Key will scan the package's barcode through their own handheld scanner. That triggers a request to Amazon which will check that everything is in order and that the driver is at the right house at the right time. It will unlock the smart lock, and the camera will begin recording as the courier drops off the parcel.

Amazon Key isn't just about delivering parcels — it can also let in regular visitors like cleaners and dogwalkers. Adding Ring's facial recognition service could make it easier and faster to give those visitors access.

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