One Ring to watch them all
Surveillance partnerships between Amazon Ring and law-enforcement around the world create an interconnected surveillance network that poses a serious threat to our privacy and other freedoms.
- Amazon Ring is turning home security cameras into interconnected private surveillance networks.
- Ring has been reported to have several agreements with law enforcement agencies around the world, where police departments undertake to advertise and recommend Ring doorbell products to individuals, in exchange for access to a “Law Enforcement Neighbors platform”.
- Public-Private surveillance partnerships can seriously undermine our freedoms and alter democratic societies, by normalising surveillance and putting everyone of us on secret watchlists that lack any sort of scrutiny or safeguards.
In April 2018, Amazon acquired “Ring”, a smart security device company best known for its video doorbell, which allows Ring users to see, talk to, and record people who come to their doorsteps.
What started out as a company pitch on Shark Tank in 2013, led to the $839 million deal, which has been crucial for Amazon to expand on their concept of the XXI century smart home. It’s not just about convenience anymore, interconnected sensors and algorithms promise protection and provide a feeling of safety in our homes.
Looking through the peephole is being replaced by cameras on porches, and this has consequences. What happens when you combine Amazon’s market reach, artificial intelligence and some groups of fearful neighbours? And what can this mean for our society when police get involved in this process?
What is “Neighbors” and what is it for?
Social media app Neighbors was launched by Ring and allows users to share suspicions about alleged criminal activity up to 5 miles around their house. Posts on the platform can fall under one of five categories: Safety, Crime, Lost Pet, Suspicious and Unknown Visitor.
By installing the app anyone can easily share footage from Ring home security cameras and, at the same time, have access to a feed of footage and concerns neighbours have shared. Having a Ring camera is not mandatory to install the app and join the community, but if you have a Ring camera you are automatically enrolled on the Neighbours app when you register your device.
Apps like Neighbours by Ring, Next-Door or Citizen have become more and more popular recently, even though reports say that crime has fallen steeply in the last years. These apps fit into the category of fear-based social media, contributing to a false sense that danger is on the rise, and “[f]or Amazon, fear is good for business” as fearfulness will contribute to more people thinking they need surveillance devices in their house in order to be safe.
Ring promises to offer a feeling of safety to its users. The definition of safety here is not unanimous though. There have been reports of racial profiling on the app, with the great majority of people being reported as “Suspicious” being people of colour. If this technology is helping perpetuate stereotypes, is it making your neighbourhood safer or racist?
These apps place power in the individual’s hands to determine whether someone does or does not belong in a community, and as a result introduce bias and unfair policing. That can potentially feed into a vicious cycle of fear and violence. The illusion of the rise of criminality can accordingly promote a falsified narrative, which the police can conveniently use to disproportionately turn everyone with a Ring device into a private surveillance officer.
Amazon’s befriending of law enforcement agencies and cities
Throughout recent years, Amazon has collaborated with several police departments across the globe. There’s a large number of reports (examples here and here) on package theft sting operations - that is leaving a dummy parcel at a certain address waiting for someone to take it - as a response to Amazon packages being stolen from people’s porches. These operations contribute to fear-mongering and deception.
Sting operations are small deals when compared to the nationwide partnerships Ring – and with it Amazon – is developing with police departments. In 2019 Ring mentioned that over 400 U.S. law enforcement agencies were active in the Neighbors platform, but the exact terms of the partnerships remain unknown.
Motherboard managed to get hold of contracts between Ring and several US Police forces through Freedom of Information Act (FOI) requests. (Did you know you can use FOI too? Have a look at our FOI guide and see how you can push public entities to be more transparent).
What’s in this partnership for the police?
Police gets access to what Ring named the “Law Enforcement Neighbourhoods Portal”. This interactive portal shows where Ring doorbell cameras are deployed in a given location, and allows the authorities to directly interact with Ring doorbell camera owners and informally request footage for investigations, without a warrant.
If users refuse to share their footage, police can still get it from Amazon through a subpoena. Meanwhile, Ring is offering training to the police on how to effectively get Ring doorbell users’ consent when requesting their footage.
“The company provides cops with templates for requesting footage, which they do not need a court warrant to do.”
What’s in this partnership for Ring?
Ring gets to have Police Departments advertising and promoting its products in a variety of ways:
- Directly engaging with communities in order to encourage them to join Ring.
- Raffles and giveaways of Ring products.
- Incentive programs such as distributing promo codes to residents that when used will give the police credit in Ring products.
All the public statements, press releases and social media posts made by the Police regarding Ring need to be approved by the company beforehand, which seems to be a common Amazon practice when it comes to the company’s collaborations with government services.
The parties shall agree to a joint press release to be mutually agreed upon by the parties”—was included in Ring documents signed by multiple police departments (…). Motherboard also reported that the Lakeland contract required police to “encourage adoption of the platform/app” and stipulated that police “keep the terms of this program confidential.
Some police officers have commented that they feel uncomfortable pushing particular products into citizens hands, claiming it’s not their place or job.
“We don’t want to push a particular product,” said an officer with the Frisco Police Department in Texas, which has partnered with Ring. “We as the police department are not doing that. That’s not our place.”
Source: Washington Post
US police is not the only one
Several UK police forces have similarly engaged in partnerships with Ring. It has been reported that four police forces have distributed Ring’s all-seeing doorbells accross their counties, while five other police forces have engaged in promoting Ring through vouchers and discount codes.
The Metropolitan Police has received a £243,000 sponsorhip in order to deploy 1,000 devices in crime hotspots accross London. Through sending FOI requests to all police forces in the UK, the Sunday Times managed to identify which were indeed involved in partnerships with Ring.
One of the great things about FOI requests is that anyone can use them and that any disclosure under FOI is a release to the public at large. If you’re curious have a look at some of the authorities’ replies here and here.
The result of Ring-police partnerships is a self-perpetuating surveillance network: More people download Neighbors, more people get Ring, surveillance footage proliferates, and police can request whatever they want.
What else is Ring getting out of these partnernships?
According to Ring’s Doorbell Terms of Service by simply purchasing a Ring product you give the company the right to access and use your Content for developing “new products and services”. By having a Ring camera you might be consenting to self-surveillance, while at the same time potentially placing you -or pretty much whoever walks by your door- on a police watchlist.
While Police already have access to publicly-funded street cameras and investigative tools, Ring cameras are proliferating in the private sphere, with close to zero oversight. Amazon is convincing people to self-surveil through aggressive, fear-based marketing, aided by de facto police endorsements and free Ring camera giveaways. Consumers are opting into surveillance. And police are more than eager to capitalize on this wealth of surveillance data.
In the meantime, Ring has also moved higher in the partnership hierarchy, creating discount programs for entire cities (like this one and this one). These programs involve cities directing up to $100,000 taxpayer money in order to subsidise Ring product purchases for its residents.
According to the terms of the contracts, Ring matches every dollar invested by the cities and in turn requires them to prominently promote and advertise these discounts. This is especially concerning since it is directly using public funds to deploy surveillance networks presented as a public service that are nonetheless privately run and ultimately for-profit.
Amazon isn’t just building an unaccountable, for-profit surveillance empire, they’re getting the government to subsidize it with our tax dollars.
In the light of COVID-19 pandemic we have seen the introduction of unprecedented surveillance measures around the world. This has provided the oportunity for Police to further pressure citisens to register their Ring devices and share their Ring doorbell footage with authorities.
Handshakes and handcuffs
Not all is smooth sailing between Ring and the authorities though.
The Intercept has published a detailed report where Ring Ukraine admits to having fired employees for inappropriately accessing servers containing costumer video files from all over the world. This led to five U.S. senators writing to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos concerned about how consumer data was being handled in that specific research lab. You can read Amazon’s response here.
Ukraine has gained importance for Amazon over time, and even though the company claims to not have plans to use facial recognition technology with Ring products in the present time, there is a “head of face recognition research” working in those offices.
Security-wise there have been reports showing how vulnerable the devices are, allowing hacking and remote accessing doorbell devices anywhere in the world. In December last year there was a data leak that exposed the log-in details of more than 3500 Ring users, allowing whoever had those credentials to access personnal footage from someone else. Amazon employees have also showed concerns towards the further development of Ring products:
The deployment of connected home security cameras that allow footage to be queried centrally are simply not compatible with a free society. The privacy issues are not fixable with regulation and there is no balance that can be struck. Ring should be shut down immediately and not brought back.
Source: Amazon Employees for Climate Justice
What now? Can I do something?
PI is challenging unlawful surveillance, including surveillance taking place through public-private surveillance partnerhsips across the globe. We believe that secret surveillance deals between law enforcement and private companies lack the necessary public debate and transparency and impose an unprecedented level of intrusion upon our everyday lives.
This form of unnecessary and disproportionate creep will consequently erode not only our privacy rights but also fundamental freedoms like our right to protest or to be able to freely criticise the governemnt, hold different opinions and express dissenting ideas. It would change the way we behave, and that goes directly against our freedom.