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1 Feb, 2021 16:25

How Amazon’s Ring, the privacy-busting doorbell surveillance tool, is extending its influence with police across the US

How Amazon’s Ring, the privacy-busting doorbell surveillance tool, is extending its influence with police across the US

The number of police forces joining Ring’s partnership program across America more than doubled in 2020, despite there being little evidence that it’s an effective crimefighting device. The rise is sparking major privacy concerns.

Newly released figures indicate that nearly 2,000 police departments across the US are partnered with Amazon’s Ring, in the process expanding the reach of the highly controversial civilian surveillance network yet further.

Ring, bought by the e-commerce giant in February 2018 for a fee that could be as much as US$1.8 billion, is best-known for producing a range of ‘smart’ doorbells, which house high-definition cameras, motion sensors, microphones, and speakers.

Not long after its purchase, the partnership program was launched – under its auspices, Ring offers authorities access to video footage recorded by the millions of internet-connected devices its customers have mounted to their homes.

In turn, citizens alerted to suspicious or outright criminal activity outside their residences by Ring’s motion sensors can submit reports directly to law enforcement via an accompanying app, ‘Neighbors’. 

The figures show a staggering 1,189 departments nationwide joined the program in 2020 – the total now stands at 2,014, including 305 fire departments.

Only two US states – Montana and Wyoming – aren’t home to forces enrolled in the program, which saw partnered departments collectively request videos related to over 22,335 incidents during 2020 alone.

Ring hails the initiative as a ‘Neighborhood Watch’ revolution, which makes areas safer by helping deter and solve crimes. Its website features numerous clips of apparent criminals caught in the act on doorsteps, and a May 2019 case in which Ring footage played a pivotal role in the identification and capture of an individual who abducted an eight-year-old was well-publicised.

Conversely, several slick promotional videos in which various police departments touted Ring’s crime-fighting capabilities have since been removed from the web.

In one such segment, which focused on the company’s partnership with police in Winter Park, Florida, the local department’s chief spoke effusively about the “value” of Ring cameras “in helping us solve crimes” – as police officers “cannot be everywhere,” the force was said to “rely” on citizens using the ‘Neighbors’ app to report incidents.

The reason for the video’s deletion is unclear, although it may be related to a February 2020 NBC News investigation which found Winter Park authorities had in fact not made a single arrest facilitated by footage obtained from Ring cameras since it partnered with the company in April 2018.

The story was much the same elsewhere. NBC interviewed 40 law enforcement agencies in eight states that had partnered with Ring for at least three months – three said the ease with which citizens can share Ring videos meant officers wasted time reviewing clips of issues such as raccoons running around and petty disagreements between neighbors, while others noted the deluge of footage rarely led to positive identifications of suspects, let alone arrests.

A total of 13 agencies had made zero arrests as a result of Ring footage, and several others, including those in large US cities, simply didn’t know how many arrests had been made as a result of their Ring partnership, even though they’d been partnered with the company for over a year.

Concerns over the program’s law-keeping efficacy are nonetheless somewhat secondary to its grave privacy implications.

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Digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has long been a fervent critic of the system, dubbing it “a perfect storm of privacy threats” and contending that Ring and comparable ‘home security’ providers serve to greatly inflate paranoia about crime, transforming every innocent delivery person, charity fundraiser, or election canvasser into a potential – if not likely – criminal with every motion sensor update beamed.

“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,” EFF argues. “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?”

Police departments are greatly incentivized by Ring to further this feedback loop. In areas where police are partnered with the company, departments are granted credits with which they can buy more cameras to distribute to residents, for every resident who downloads the Neighbors app. As such, officers are encouraged to act as unadvertised sales reps for Ring.

Such disquieting blurring of lines between corporate interests and public services doesn’t stop there. As Gizmodo revealed in July 2019, questions directed to police departments concerning Ring are often passed directly to the company’s press and communications department, meaning many public statements on Ring ostensibly issued by authorities – including social media posts – are in fact authored by the company itself.

Questions abound over the degree to which users can be compelled to hand over data collected by the devices. Ring claims customers are free to decline police requests for footage if they wish, which is meagre reassurance given they may find direct approaches from law enforcement difficult to refuse – particularly given Amazon actively instructs officers on how to coax and manipulate residents into acquiescing to disclosure requests.

Moreover, Amazon can be subject to subpoenas, court orders and search warrants to provide footage or identifying data, even if device owners deny access. In 2020, 1,900 such requests were made, an increase of over 150 percent year-on-year. The majority (1,610) were search warrants, which chillingly can cover both demands for video content, and sensitive customer data including purchase history and service usage information.

Those statistics also indicate the company’s rate of compliance with such requests fell from 68 percent in 2019 to 57 percent a year later, although the reduction surely offers little comfort to advocates given how the number of police departments partnered with Ring rose significantly over the same period.

In mid-January, after years of demands from campaigners, Ring at last enabled end-to-end encryption, albeit not as standard but an ‘opt-in’, meaning any file forcibly handed over to authorities would be theoretically impossible to view without users’ cooperation, as their credentials – which are similarly encrypted, and which Amazon allegedly cannot access – are required to decrypt files.

Still, privacy-conscious users may wish to consult Ring’s terms of service – for they reveal the company and its licensees reserve “an unlimited, irrevocable, fully paid, and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right to reuse, distribute store, delete, translate, copy, modify, display, sell, and create derivative works” from any and all data created and stored by its devices. 

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