Amazon’s Ring Is a Perfect Storm of Privacy Threats
Doors across the United States are now fitted with Amazon’s Ring, a combination doorbell-security camera that records and transmits video straight to users’ phones, to Amazon’s cloud—and often to the local police department. By sending photos and alerts every time the camera detects motion or someone rings the doorbell, the app can create an illusion of a household under siege. It turns what seems like a perfectly safe neighborhood into a source of anxiety and fear. This raises the question: do you really need Ring, or have Amazon and the police misled you into thinking that you do?
Recent reports show that Ring has partnered with police departments across the country to hawk this new surveillance system—going so far as to draft press statements and social media posts for police to promote Ring cameras. This creates a vicious cycle in which police promote the adoption of Ring, Ring terrifies people into thinking their homes are in danger, and then Amazon sells more cameras.
How Ring Surveils and Frightens Residents
Even though government statistics show that crime in the United States has been steadily decreasing for decades, people’s perception of crime and danger in their communities often conflict with the data. Vendors prey on these fears by creating products that inflame our greatest anxieties about crime.
Ring works by sending notifications to a person’s phone every time the doorbell rings or motion near the door is detected. With every update, Ring turns the delivery person or census-taker innocently standing on at the door into a potential criminal.
Neighborhood watch apps only increase the paranoia. Amazon promotes its free Neighbors app to accompany Ring. Other vendors sell competing apps such as Nextdoor and Citizen. All are marketed as localized social networks where people in a neighborhood can discuss local issues or share concerns. But all too often, they facilitate reporting of so-called “suspicious” behavior that really amounts to racial profiling. Take, for example, the story of an African-American real estate agent who was stopped by police because neighbors thought it was “suspicious” for him to ring a doorbell.
Even law enforcement are noticing the social consequences of public-safety-by-push-notification. At the International Associations of Chiefs of Police conference earlier this year, which EFF attended, Chandler Police Assistant Chief Jason Zdilla said that his city in Arizona embraced the Ring program, registering thousands of new Ring cameras per month. Though Chandler is experiencing a historic low for violent crime for the fourth year in a row, Ring is giving the public another impression.
“What happens is when someone opens up the social media, and every day they see maybe a potential criminal act, or every day they see a suspicious person, they start believing that this is prevalent, and that crime is really high,” Zdilla said.
If getting an alert from your front door or your neighbor every time a stranger walks down the street doesn’t cause enough paranoia, Ring is trying to alert users to local 911 calls. The Ring-police partnerships would allow the company to tap into the computer-aided dispatch system, and alert users to local 911 calls as part of the “crime news” alerts on its app, Neighbors. Such push alerts based on 911 calls could be used to instill fear and sell additional Ring services.
From Neutral Guardians to Scripted Hawkers
Thanks to in-depth reporting from Motherboard, Gizmodo, CNET, and others, we know a lot about the symbiotic relationship between Amazon’s Ring and local police departments, and how that relationship jeopardizes privacy and circumvents regulation.
Police that partner with Ring reportedly have access to Ring’s “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal,” which allows police to see a map of the locations of Ring cameras. Police may then ask owners for access to their footage—and when owners give permission, police do not need to acquire a warrant.
The arrangement is also financial. Amazon encourages police to encourage residents to install the Ring app and purchase cameras for their homes. Per Motherboard, for every town resident that downloads Ring’s Neighbors app, the local police department gets credits toward buying cameras it can distribute to residents. This arrangement makes salespeople out of what should be impartial and trusted protectors of our civic society.
This is not the first time the government has attempted to use an economic incentive to expand the reach of surveillance technology and to subsidize the vendors. In 2017, EFF spoke out against legislation that would provide tax credits for California residents who purchased home security systems.
Police departments also get communications instruction from the large global corporation. Documents acquired by Gizmodo revealed that questions directed at police departments concerning Ring are often passed on to Ring’s Public Relations team. Thus, many statements about Ring that residents think are coming from their trusted local police, are actually written by Ring. Worse, Ring instructed police departments not to reveal their connections to the company. Instead of getting an even-handed conversation with your local police about the benefits and pitfalls of installing a networked security camera, residents are fed canned lines from a corporation whose ultimate goal is to sell more cameras.
Even the Monitoring Association, an international trading organization for surveillance equipment, announced its concern regarding Ring's police partnerships. The organization's President, Ivan Spector, told CNET, "We are troubled by recent reports of agreements that are said to drive product-specific promotion, without alerting consumers about these marketing relationships...This lack of transparency goes against our standards as an industry, diminishes public trust, and takes advantage of these public servants."
Dissemination of Your Video Images
So, Ring and the police have an intimate relationship revolving around sharing data and money. But at least users own their own video footage and control who gets access to it, right? Not if you ask Amazon.
Earlier this year, social media users pointed out that Ring was using actual security camera footage of alleged wrong-doers in sponsored ads. Amazon harvested pictures of people’s faces and posted them alongside accusations that they were guilty of a crime, without consulting the person pictured or the owners of the cameras. According to their terms of service, Ring and its licensees have “an unlimited, irrevocable, fully paid, and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right to re-use, distribute store, delete, translate, copy, modify, display, sell, create derivative works,” in relation to the footage taken from your front door.
Police will also seek access to residents’ video footage. Residents may deny police access when requested. However, Amazon actively coaches police on how to persuade residents to hand over the footage. A professional communications expert instructs police on how to manipulate residents into giving away their Ring’s footage.
If convincing the resident doesn’t work, police can go straight to Amazon and ask them for the footage. This process circumvents the camera’s owner. Amazon says it will not disclose Ring video to police absent a warrant from a judge or consent from the resident. And California law generally requires police to get a warrant in this situation. But some California police say they don’t need a warrant. Tony Botti of the Fresno County Sheriff’s department told Government Technology that police can “subpoena” a Ring video. A subpoena typically does not require judicial authorization before it is sent. Botti continued: “as long as it’s been uploaded to the cloud, then Ring can take it out of the cloud and send it to us legally so that we can use it as part of our investigation.” Amazon needs to clear up this uncertainty.
The rapid proliferation of this partnership between police departments and the Ring surveillance system—without any oversight, transparency, or restrictions—poses a grave threat to the privacy of all people in the community. It also may chill the First Amendment rights of political canvassers and community organizers who spread their messages door-to-door, and contribute to the unfair racial profiling of our minority neighbors and visitors. Even if you chose not to put a camera on your front door, video footage of your comings and goings might easily be accessed and used by your neighbors, the police, and Amazon itself. The growing partnerships between Amazon and police departments corrodes trust in an important civic institution by turning public servants into salespeople for Amazon products.
Residents of towns whose police department have already cut a deal with Ring should voice their concern to local officials. Users of Ring should also consider how their privacy, and the privacy of the neighbors, may be harmed by having a camera on their front door, networked into a massive police surveillance system.