How Ring Is Turning Law Enforcement into a ‘Publicly Financed Sales Arm’

The Amazon company says it is on a mission to reduce crime

Doorbell camera
Ring is building its network of law enforcement partners, and the ACLU says that's reason for concern. Facebook: Ring
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Amazon’s video doorbell Ring has quietly partnered with more than 400 U.S. police forces, according to a new report from the Washington Post.

The story said police and sheriffs’ departments in cities like Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Phoenix not only have access to users’ camera footage, but they can also automatically request video from these cameras within a specific time and area, which raises questions from advocates for civil liberties about surveillance—and even ethics. A Ring spokesperson, however, denied police have access to users’ camera footage.

This is also more than double previous estimates of Ring’s law enforcement network and, the Washington Post says, includes 31 agencies in California, 57 in Texas and 67 in Florida.

Ring’s Neighbors app allows users, law enforcement and Ring itself to share text, photo or video about crime and safety on an interactive map and to communicate with each other.

The Ring spokesperson said videos are shared only if a user chooses to post them publicly and he or she provides explicit consent. In addition, the spokesperson said law enforcement agency partners must go through the Ring team when making video requests.

“Customers can choose opt out or decline any request and law enforcement agencies have no visibility into which customers have received a request and which have opted out or declined,” the spokesperson added.

When iOS and Android versions came out in May 2018, Ring said police and sheriffs’ departments throughout the U.S. were joining the network “as a new way to share real-time crime and safety alerts with their communities” and its case studies called out communities in Georgia and Oregon in addition to examples in states already mentioned here.

In a September 2018 blog post, founder Jamie Siminoff said Ring partnered with the Los Angeles Police Department in 2015—which resulted in a 55% decrease in break-ins—and with the City of Newark and Newark’s Department of Public Safety in 2018. For the latter, Ring donated more than 500 devices to homeowners.

Newark is hardly the only example of Ring parent Amazon giving away these devices to spur usage. The Washington Post said Ring has given free cameras to police departments to distribute in places like Norfolk, Va., and Frisco, Texas. And, earlier this month, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported local police were giving away free Ring doorbell cameras there, too. Additional reports show law enforcement in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., have also given away Ring devices to citizens. Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU said reports have shown some police departments found consent loopholes by requiring citizens who received free video doorbells to agree to hand over their footage.

According to the Post, Amazon has started to phase out this giveaway program, but it has also offered discounts to cities and community groups that spend public or taxpayer-supported funding on the cameras, and Amazon has asked its partners to use social media to encourage individuals to use Neighbors—and Norfolk Police Department even posted a discount code to its Facebook page.

The distribution of free Ring cameras turns these police departments into what Stanley told Adweek is a “publicly financed sales arm for Amazon.”

“Basically, this is an example of one of America’s largest companies and police departments cooperating in a project of mutual interest that is the surveillance of American communities,” he added. “It’s a little spooky and disconcerting to have these two powerful forces pushing so aggressively to increase surveillance.”

In a statement, Siminoff said Neighbors “[maintains] neighbor privacy first and foremost” and while Ring said users like Brandi Alexander in Anchorage, Alaska, have used Neighbors to identify package thieves, concerns remain. Beyond surveillance, reports have also cited the potential for bias in crime-reporting apps like Neighbors, which can reinforce stereotypes about race.

Stanley urged consumers considering a video doorbell to “go in with their eyes wide open” and to be aware of the risks, which include hackers, Amazon and the government.

“Like all other internet of things devices, if you are putting a mic or a camera on the premises, you are exposing yourself to risk,” he said. “People get devices with mics and cameras to empower themselves, but there is always a risk that that power gets flipped against them.”

The risk with Amazon goes back to trusting that the company and the device will do what they say they will, as well as what happens after video is uploaded to the cloud.

“If you upload video to someone else’s computer, you are losing a certain amount of control,” Stanley said. “You have to trust that company won’t share it or let the government have it without a warrant or allow its workers to look at the video.”

This story has been updated to reflect comments from Ring.

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@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.