Over 400 US police forces have access to the video footage generated by Amazon’s “smart” Ring doorbells, creating an unprecedented – and largely unaccountable – surveillance network outside existing legal structures.
Video-sharing partnerships allow law enforcement to automatically request video from Ring owners within a designated timeframe and area, giving them access to millions of cameras that police claim have proved invaluable for investigations. Officers are not supposed to receive access to live-streaming video, and users can deny the footage requests – which come in the form of emails thanking them for “making your neighborhood a safer place” –but they don’t always have the option of saying “no.”
By installing the “smart” doorbells, Ring users consent to the company supplying video to “law enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or third parties” in response to a “legal process or reasonable government request,” according to the terms of service. The company can also preserve footage the user deletes. Confronted with uncooperative residents, police can go directly to Amazon to obtain the footage, as long as they present a “valid and binding legal demand.”
Ring users have access to a social network called Neighbors, allowing area residents to swap footage from their doorbells and discuss suspicious goings-on in the neighborhood – another invaluable resource for law enforcement.
Emails reviewed by Motherboard show several New Jersey police departments coaching their officers on how to cajole surveillance footage out of Ring users without a search warrant – “increasing the opt-in rate,” as one representative called it. Surveilled individuals don’t have the option of opting out. If they walk by a camera, 400 police forces are potentially going to know about it, and if someone on the network deems them suspicious, they may find police attention follows them out of that neighborhood.
Amazon’s surveillance network has the advantage of operating in the private sector, free from restrictions placed on police activity to protect citizens. Municipalities including San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts, for example, recently barred local cops from using facial recognition in body cameras – but such restrictions do not apply to doorbell cameras. If Amazon were to equip Ring with its Rekognition program, the tech could be used to track people over huge areas of the US. Last year, the company applied for a facial-recognition patient that would alert when a person designated “suspicious” was caught on camera. Already, the high-resolution cameras can supply detailed images not just of the owner’s property, but of goings-on across the street and even further.
Privacy advocates have criticized Ring’s private sector panopticon as a “business model based in paranoia.” Fight for the Future deputy director Evan Greer denounced it as “a privately run surveillance dragnet built outside the democratic process,” delivered in an app’s nonthreatening package to make the privacy implications go down smoother.
“They’re doing what Uber did for taxis, but for surveillance cameras, by making them more user-friendly,” he told the Washington Post.
Ring’s police partnership program launched just last year, not long after Amazon bought the company. Police are so enamored of the tool that some have likened it to DNA testing in its potential to revolutionize the job. Meanwhile, Ring has offered technology training for its partner agencies, teaching them how to request footage, how to “increase uptake” by getting communities to use Neighbors, and even offering discounted or free cameras to police forces – in exchange for the right to ghostwrite police press releases about the product.
“Ring is using local police as a de facto advertising firm,” the EFF has complained.
Amazon purchased Ring in order to integrate the “smart” doorbells with its AI assistant Alexa. Given Alexa’s track record of “accidentally” sending recordings to random names in users’ address books – or random customers on the other side of the world – Ring users who think they have the ultimate say in what happens to their doorbell footage should not be so confident. Even if the police are unable to secure a legal order to slurp up their footage, Alexa might blab their secrets to the world.