More than 30 privacy and consumer advocacy groups are urging local legislators to intervene in doorbell-camera company Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement.
In 2018, Amazon-owned Ring announced that it was starting a “new neighborhood watch” effort, to allow homeowners to provide voluntary access to camera footage to officers. In the event of an incident, police can request the video recorded by homeowners’ cameras for a specific geographic area and time range – but homeowners can decline the requests. In August, the Washington Post reported that the effort has been on a rapid growth track, with Ring now partnering with more than 400 police departments across the country.
“Amazon Ring partnerships with police departments threaten civil liberties, privacy and civil rights, and exist without oversight or accountability,” reads the letter. “We call on mayors and city councils to require police departments to cancel any and all existing Amazon Ring partnerships, and to pass surveillance oversight ordinances that will deter police departments from entering into such agreements in the future.”
Ringing the Police
The police requests for Ring footage are made via Neighbors, which is a companion app to Ring that allows users to share footage in the name of reporting local crimes, stolen packages, or suspicious visitors and activity (as well as lost pets). It also integrates official police reports compiled by Neighbors curators in order to lend context.
“If anyone shares an alert on the app about crime or safety within [your] radius, you’ll get a notification on your phone and tablet,” according to the Neighbors web page. “Conversely, if you share an alert on the App about a crime or safety issue in your radius, your neighbors will also get a notification on their phones and tablets. You can then comment on these alerts to provide additional information about local issues, give tips to avoid affected areas, share photos or videos to help neighbors stay on the lookout, etc.”
Police departments use a Neighbors Portal map interface to request video footage for geographic areas that can be up to half a square mile wide; Ring then sends an email to all Neighbors users within that area asking their permission to share video.
As Ring explained on its law-enforcement page, “With the tool, local law enforcement can ask Ring to request video footage from device owners who are in the area of an active investigation. When making a video request to Ring, law enforcement must reference a relevant case, and can only request video recordings within a limited time and area. With each request, customers decide whether to share all relevant videos, review and select certain videos to share, take no action (decline), or opt-out of all future requests.”
Critics of the program cite concerns about overreach and the potential for unwarranted surveillance – particularly given that people filmed by the doorbell haven’t given their consent for their image to be captured and shared.
In a letter sent to Amazon CEO to Jeff Bezos last month, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) requested more information on Ring’s specific privacy policies, especially around consent.
“Although Amazon markets Ring as America’s ‘new neighborhood watch,’ the technology captures and stores video from millions of households and sweeps up footage of countless bystanders who may be unaware that they are being filmed,” Markey wrote.
Another major concern is how Amazon and the police departments themselves handle the video footage once it’s shared. The letter from the advocacy groups claims that there are no limits on how long departments can store the content; and states concerns that the footage could be used in facial-recognition efforts or for compiling databases to track citizens that have done nothing illegal.
“These partnerships pose a serious threat to civil rights and liberties, especially for black and brown communities already targeted and surveilled by law enforcement,” reads the letter. It added, “once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI.”
Markey echoed the concern: “I am particularly alarmed to learn that Ring is pursuing facial recognition technology with the potential to flag certain individuals as suspicious based on their biometric information.”
Another issue stems from reporting that Ring gives police departments scripted sales pitches to use in order to encourage their communities to install Ring and join the program; and, that Ring itself uses targeted language to encourage users to grant the police access to doorbell video footage.
“Amazon provides officers with talking points to promote their technology and products to residents, and requests departments market the products at city events,” according to the advocacy group letter. “On the back end, Amazon carefully scripts everything that authorities say about the program, and coaches police on the best talking points to get customers to hand over their footage.”
The open letter was signed by Fight for the Future, Media Justice, Color of Change, Secure Justice, Demand Progress, Defending Rights & Dissent, Muslim Justice League, X-Lab, Media Mobilizing Project, Restore The Fourth, Inc., Media Alliance, Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project, Center for Human Rights and Privacy, Oakland Privacy, Justice For Muslims Collective, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Nation Digital Inclusion Alliance, Project On Government Oversight, OpenMedia, Council on American-Islamic Relations-SFBA, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, MPower Change, Mijente, Access Humboldt, RAICES, National Immigration Law Center, The Tor Project, United Church of Christ, Office of Communication Inc., the Constitutional Alliance, RootsAction.org, CREDO Action, Presente.org, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and United We Dream.
For its part, Ring insists that its program is nothing but a community boon. “The mission has always been making the neighborhood safer,” said Eric Kuhn, the general manager of Neighbors, told the Washington Post. “We’ve had a lot of success in terms of deterring crime and solving crimes that would otherwise not be solved as quickly.”
Threatpost has reached out to Ring for further comment and will update this post accordingly.
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