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Amazon's Ring Video Camera Alarms Privacy Advocates

The new home security IoT product, which has seen widespread use by law enforcement agencies across the country, allows police to view home surveillance footage to assist with their investigations.

Another Amazon product has triggered privacy concerns. 

Ring, which was acquired by the tech giant for $1 billion last year, is a “smart doorbell” that has been billed largely as a home security device. Designed to capture images of porch thieves or other neighborhood criminals, the product functions like an Internet-connected security camera, the video from which can be livestreamed and watched on devices connected to the company’s app. 

What has raised eyebrows, however, is the company’s push for partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the country, a fact that some feel has allowed police to create informal surveillance networks in hundreds of neighborhoods. 

Under Ring partnerships, police are provided with a special portal that allows them to communicate with and request video from community residents.  

Amazon offers these partnerships for free, in exchange for the signing of a memo of understanding that has also caused controversy. Critics allege these memos allow Amazon the unprecedented ability to ghostwrite a majority of law enforcement’s press releases about the product, leading to accusations that “Ring is using local police as a de facto advertising firm.”

“What we’re talking about is a private company trying to disrupt the public safety infrastructure of this country in the same way that companies have gone into other parts of our society,” said Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Among other things, Maass sees the product as problematic for both consumer privacy and cybersecurity. 

“Information is being collected on people who are just going about their lives. Not necessarily doing anything nefarious, yet they’re having information collected on them anyway,” he said. “By deploying tens of thousands of these cameras in any given community, you’re also creating a very wide surface area for attack [for hackers],” he went on. “We’ve seen over the years that IoT devices — specifically web cameras and CCTV cameras — have proven very rich targets for malicious actors.” 

Another Amazon law enforcement tool, known as “Rekognition,” has also run into controversy with privacy groups. The facial recognition subscription service, which is used by law enforcement agencies and other organizations, has come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union for accuracy problems and for its potential to be used as a tracking tool.

As for Ring, the sheer scale of the company’s partnership with law enforcement was revealed in a recent report published by Motherboard that showed that some 200 police departments had signed on to work with the company.    

However, police clearly view the device as a helpful tool that can augment necessary investigations. 

Two law enforcement agencies to recently partner with Ring are the Fresno Police Department and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. Staff of both received training for the new device in July, and the Ring portal was recently made operational for both offices, said Tony Botti, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office.

Botti said that while the partnership is new, he feels it will have a positive impact on law enforcement’s ability to investigate crimes in the community. 

“We just like the fact that Ring wants to work with law enforcement and the citizens and bring us into the same forum to try to keep our community safe,” he said. “It lessens the work we have to do; maybe we have to knock on a few less doors to get the video.” 

Botti also disagreed with the claims of privacy violations. 

“I would say to anybody who thinks this is another case of Big Brother watching or us trying to invade privacy, go to step one: it took the consumer to invest in the product,” he said. “They chose to pay for a service that enables it to be viewed by either us or Ring. The consumer knows what they’re getting into...If you’re a good upstanding person who is doing things lawfully, nobody has concerns.”

Typically, there is a willingness on the part of the community to help with investigations, Botti added. 

However, he noted, there is a workaround if a resident happens to reject a police request. If the community member doesn’t want to supply a Ring video that seems vital to a local law enforcement investigation, police can contact Amazon, which will then essentially “subpoena” the video. 

“If we ask within 60 days of the recording and 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,” he said.

Typically, this shouldn’t be necessary though, Botti said. According to what police have been told by Amazon, most people “play ball” because they want their community to be a safer place, he said. 

Editor's note: After this article was published, a spokesperson for Ring clarified that video evidence is only turned over to the authorities after being served with a "valid and binding legal demand."  

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.