“Porch pirate” is a phrase that shouldn’t exist in the age of civilized living, but here we are. If you’re not familiar with the term, a porch pirate is an individual who steals shipped packages from in front of people’s homes. According to one survey, some 31 percent of consumers in the U.S. may have had their parcels taken at one point or another.
Like any other kind of theft, porch piracy is a crime and a nuisance. But in some extreme cases, this type of robbery brings unexpected types of harm — as a Nevada family discovered when a porch pirate made off with expensive cancer medication for their 14-year-old son.
Until we finish civilizing ourselves, technology companies are looking to provide fixes for this surprisingly common, unsurprisingly frustrating problem. Let’s take a look at some of the forms they might take.
Home Surveillance Comes of Age
In the not so distant past, undertaking video surveillance of a property involved wiring up a series of cameras and preparing to dive into dozens or hundreds of hours of literal videotape footage in case a theft did happen, and police needed a lead.
None of this is true any longer. Modern technology has given a boost to home security in many ways, all of which apply to the problem of stopping porch pirates in their tracks:
- Smart Cameras: Smart home surveillance cameras — like those popularized by Nest, Logitech, Vivint, and other companies — can be set to begin recording video of your front porch, or another area, when motion is detected. No more recording onto boxes of videotapes.
- Smart Lights: Automatic lighting systems operate like smart cameras by activating when intruders are detected. Having your yard flood with light is a strong deterrent on its own. Additionally, homeowners can have these systems send a push notification to their smartphone or tablet in real-time, so they know anytime uninvited activity has been detected whether they’re home or not.
- Smart Doorbells: Connected doorbell systems are a popular way for homeowners to receive digital alerts when a parcel is delivered to their front door or another visitor steps onto the premises. Some of these systems also record video, making them an attractive multi-purpose device for security-minded property owners or managers.
Collectively, devices like these are part of what’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). It’s what gives average consumers and big companies alike eyes and ears into their operations and lives, even when they’re not physically present. A combination of Internet connectivity and sensors makes them a promising, though imperfect, part of a comprehensive defense against porch piracy.
Technology For When Technology Falls Short
If there’s an obvious pitfall in these technology-based solutions, it’s that they don’t necessarily provide actionable leads to law enforcement officials. Given that pursuing misdemeanors and even felonies more aggressively do not reduce crime, perhaps this is a blessing.
So, what other kinds of practical solutions are floating around now — and who’s floating them? Given that retail giant Amazon shipped some 5 billion individual products as part of its Prime program in 2017, the company has some interest in making sure more of its parcels reach their intended recipients.
To that end, the company attempted a rollout of something called Amazon Key, which provided a way for smart lock-equipped apartments and other locations to serve as certified “dead drops” for customers who don’t want to receive their shipments at their own homes.
Unfortunately, the pilot program only duplicated the existing problem — reportedly, strangers were finding their way to these dead drops anyway. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the box — only that a delivery has been made and that, in the right circumstances, it represents an attractive nuisance to the nearby criminal element.
For their part, police departments in some piracy-prone areas are attempting to catch thieves by baiting decoy parcels with GPS devices.
Amazon isn’t the only technology company pursuing a solution to this ongoing problem. In the Fresno, CA, area, another tech outfit, Strategic Innovations, is taking the “digital-physical key” concept Amazon attempted and baking it right into a product called “eDOR.”
This is probably more in line with what to expect when it comes to a long-term, consumer- and business-ready solution to porch piracy. eDOR proposes a physical lockbox be installed at a home or business, and that when an eDOR-verified delivery representative enters the property to make a delivery, the eDOR unlocks for them and only them, using some kind of near-field communication.
We wouldn’t say this is “out of the box” thinking, exactly! But, it’s a thoughtful solution to a simple but vexing problem. A product like this creates brand-new problems, of course — such as the development of digital security standards that work across shipping companies and “dropbox” manufacturers. The execution of those security standards would be as potentially fraught, and just as tempting to criminals, as any other security measure. In other words, somebody, somewhere, could find a way to spoof the “drop box verification” sent from, say, an authorized FedEx or USPS carrier, to a recipient’s home drop box.
Until we iron out the kinks in these solutions, it’s worth remembering that when we treat diseases, we treat the source — not just the symptoms. But until we better understand the socioeconomic and psychological reasons why people stoop to stealing from our front stoops, it’s good to know we’ve got people on the case.