Ring Doorbell’s Police Partnerships Questioned Over Racial Bias

Amazon has placed a moratorium on police use of its facial recognition platform – but a congressman asked if that extends to its Ring smart doorbell in a new inquiry.

A U.S. congressman is asking Amazon if it plans to place a moratorium on police access to its Ring smart doorbell video footage, citing concerns around surveillance and racial bias.

The inquiry comes on the heels of Amazon saying it would halt the sale of its Rekognition facial recognition platform to police departments (mimicking similar moves by Microsoft and IBM) in June. But Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, argued that Amazon’s commitment to joining “the fight against systemic racism and injustice” is undermined as long as it continues its existing partnership with police departments for Ring doorbell access.

“The Subcommittee is concerned that these partnerships give police a much wider system of surveillance than police legally could build themselves,” according to the letter, sent Wednesday. “Law enforcement agencies can view videos shared by users in the Neighbors app, request video from users through the Neighbors Portal, or request video directly from Ring. Once law enforcement agencies have access to consumers’ data, Ring has made it clear that the agencies can use, store, and share that data however they want.”

The partnerships between Ring and law enforcement began in 2018 and has extended to now include at least 1,300 police departments across the U.S. The partnership allows homeowners to provide voluntary access to camera footage to officers, via a Neighbors app.

This is a companion app to Ring enabling users to share footage for the purposes 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. 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 also decline the requests.

However, Krishnamoorthi cited concerns that these partnerships could lead to too much police surveillance, as well as create prejudices. Some cities are even creating incentives to place products (like Ring’s doorbell cameras) in minority neighborhoods, said Krishnamoorthi — including paying residents up to $150 to put up cameras in high-crime and low-income areas and giving police departments access to the footage.

“The Neighbors app, which allows users to upload videos recorded by Ring’s doorbell cameras, amplifies users’ implicit biases. The Subcommittee is concerned that the messages that some users of Neighbors app are creating may stoke fears, prejudices, and violence…  Neighbors app messages like these could result in tragedy,” according to the letter.

Beyond this letter, Ring’s police partnership has drawn concerns from privacy experts over the years, with over 30 consumer advocacy groups in 2019 urging local legislators to intervene in doorbell-camera company Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement. This week, Jason Kelley and Matthew Guariglia with the Electronic Frontier Foundation also put Ring on blast, calling for the company “to immediately end the partnerships it holds” with law enforcement agencies.

“We’re glad Amazon has admitted that the unregulated use of face recognition can do harm to vulnerable communities,” they said. “Now it’s time for it to admit the dangers of Ring-police partnerships, and stand behind its statement on police brutality.”

Krishnamoorthi requested that by July 15, Amazon disclose a list of the specific neighborhood watch groups and police departments that it’s working with, as well as whether it plans to discontinue or adjust any or all partnerships with law enforcement.

Threatpost has reached out to Amazon for further comment.

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