Ring, the home security and smart home company best known for video doorbells and security cameras, has developed a series of data sharing partnerships with law enforcement around the United States. The relationships have raised concerns about privacy and potential civil liberties violations, as well as questions about the intersection of data, smart technology, and law enforcement.
Ring and Law Enforcement
Relationships between Ring and law enforcement agencies have been publicized by various media outlets throughout the year, though the true extent was initially unknown: as Ars Technica summarized, “Gizmodo in July reported at least 225 such partnerships existed, and at the start of August, Vice Motherboard said it knew of at least 231. Researcher Shreyas Gandlur on August 8 launched an effort to pinpoint all of the known partnerships on a map; by [late August], he had learned of 358.”
Ring eventually made public the full extent of agreements in a blog post, revealing partnerships with a total of 405 law enforcement agencies around the country (as of August 28). Each law enforcement agency has access to an extension of Ring’s Neighbors app, called Neighbors Portal, which allows law enforcement to “engage with their local community.” Engaging in this context includes posting important information about crime and safety events in their neighborhoods, viewing and commenting on public posts as a verified law enforcement officer, and/or asking for help on active investigations by submitting requests for video recordings.
The mutually beneficial partnership means police get access (pending user permission) to a nationwide source of video footage without having to develop the underlying infrastructure, while Ring can use law enforcement to help sell their products and collect data when users sign up for the Neighbors service.
Multiple reports have criticized the remarkable amount of control Ring maintains over law enforcement’s messaging when discussing its products. A Gizmodo report describes law enforcement using pre-written social media messages “seemingly written by the police themselves,” as well as language in agreements “[attempting] to legally obligate police to give the company final say on all statements about its products.” Ring typically scripts partnership announcements from law enforcement agencies, says Motherboard, and press packets are distributed to partners with “instructions dictating that final drafts of public remarks must be sent to Ring so that the company’s PR team can ‘review and sign off’ before they’re sent to local news outlets.”
These Partnerships are Raising Concerns
Naturally, skeptics are concerned about law enforcement’s ability to access Ring footage, as well as the extent to which the footage is available. Conscious of recent sensitivity over data use, Ring was quick to add in its blog post that they have “also been thoughtful about designing how law enforcement engages with the Neighbors app to ensure users always stay in control of the information they share, and that their privacy is protected.” Law enforcement can’t access Ring cameras without permission, though they can ask Ring’s parent company Amazon for footage if it has been uploaded to the cloud and the request is sent within 60 days of recording, regardless of user permission.
Ring’s comments have done little to assuage the fears of privacy and rights advocates. Electronic Frontier Foundation, a prominent digital rights group, unveiled a list of concerns over the partnership, including the lack of transparency about the agreements, the idea of law enforcement becoming de facto salespeople for Ring’s products, and the fact that “Amazon coaches police on how to best talk residents into handing over their footage so police don’t have to get a warrant.”
Another hot button issue – racial profiling via technology – is at play here. Motherboard reports that “Neighbors has a problem with racism, much like similar neighborhood-based apps like NextDoor.” Motherboard examined every user-submitted post on Neighbors within a five-mile radius of VICE offices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn for more than two months, and found that user-submitted videos on Neighbors (taken on Ring cameras) disproportionately depict people of color. What’s more, the video descriptions frequently use racist language or make racist assumptions about the people shown.
Lawmakers Looking at the Issue
The combination of issues, neatly summarized in an article in The Washington Post, soon caught the attention of a high-profile figure – Senator Edward J. Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts). Techcrunch reports that Markey, in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, voiced his concern about “serious privacy and civil liberties concerns.” He included a list of seven questions about the practice to be answered by September 26, though nothing further has been publicized at this time.
It seems unlikely that scrutiny will abate soon over Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement. Naturally, in an era where big tech is increasingly under a microscope for how they conduct business, the nature of Ring’s agreements is raising questions with few immediate answers. The idea of law enforcement using new technology to reduce crime is, in Markey’s words, “encouraged and welcome.” But how to best to do that—while protecting civil liberties—remains an ongoing debate.