The FBI is worried that Ring doorbell owners can use footage collected from their smart devices to keep tabs on police, newly uncovered documents show.
The documents – a 2019 Technical Analysis Bulletin from the FBI – was spotted by The Intercept in the BlueLeaks database, a trove of 270 gigabytes of data reportedly leaked from 200 police departments, which was released publicly in June. While unclassified, the document is “law-enforcement (LE) sensitive” according to the Feds, meaning that it has been distributed internally within the federal government and among law enforcement units, and is prohibited to those “without FBI authorization.”
The FBI document outlines how Ring surveillance footage could present new “challenges” for law enforcement. Ring owners can get an early alert if police officers are approaching their house, for instance, or the footage could give away officer locations in a standoff.
“The FBI assesses IoT devices are likely to pose new challenges to LE personnel, negatively affecting LE effectiveness and pose security challenges for LE personnel,” according to the 2019 document uncovered by The Intercept. “Most IoT devices contain sensors and cameras, which generate an alert or can be remotely accessed by the owner to identify activity in and around an owner’s property. If used during the execution of a search, potential subjects could learn of LE’s presence nearby, and LE personnel could have their images captured, thereby presenting risk to their present and future safety.”
In one 2017 incident, the FBI approached a home to issue a search warrant. The warrant subject was able to see the FBI’s presence through his smart-video doorbell, and contacted his neighbor and landlord regarding the law enforcement’s presence, the FBI said.
Access to home security camera footage could also allow users to bypass law enforcement altogether, as seen in an August 2018 incident, warned the FBI. There, homeowners posted images collected from their smart security system on social media, posting public accusations against subjects in the footage about “possible crimes” – without contacting the cops first.
The concerns of the FBI pose an ironic contrast from previous worries from privacy advocates around Amazon-owned Ring’s police partnership and what that means for surveillance and racial bias. Over the years, more than 30 consumer advocacy groups in 2019 have urged local legislators to intervene in Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement. And in 2019, Jason Kelley and Matthew Guariglia with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also put Ring on blast, calling for the company “to immediately end the partnerships it holds” with law enforcement agencies.
Beyond Ring’s relationship with law enforcement, privacy advocates have concerns around how the smart doorbell collects and shares information. A 2020 EFF investigation found that Amazon’s Ring Doorbell app for Android is a nexus for data-harvesting, with privacy advocates alleging Ring goes so far as to silently deliver updates on Ring customer usage to Facebook, even if the Ring owner doesn’t have a Facebook account.
The FBI for its part noted that IoT devices in general have been paramount in helping assist law-enforcement efforts. For instance, last October, a Colorado man shared footage from his smart car’s motion-detecting cameras of a woman keying his car, allowing local law enforcement to identify the woman on social media.
“The FBI assesses that IoT devices very likely can be used to identify subjects of LE investigations by providing a new digital trail of evidence leading to subjects, resulting in more timely arrests,” according to the FBI document.
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