Amid months of damaging investigative reporting and pressure by advocacy groups like EFF, senators are finally joining the fight to learn just how invasive and harmful Amazon’s Ring cameras are to the privacy of people in their vicinity.
In September, after it had been revealed that over 400 police departments around the country had entered into agreements with Ring, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to the company demanding answers. These agreements give police departments access to a portal that allows them to bulk request footage from Ring users with little beyond an incident number connected to a specific case to prove they need the footage. This simple process to access potentially hundreds of cameras in the vicinity of an incident creates a vested interest for police to help expand the use of Ring cameras within their towns. We’ve written before about concerns with Ring-law enforcement partnerships; as of November 2019—two months after Markey sent his letter—there are now well over 600.
On November 19, Senator Markey announced that he had received a response from Ring that confirmed what many of us had assumed: that Ring does little to prevent police from doing just about anything with footage once it has been shared with them through Ring’s portal. For instance, if police want to request footage from a person’s front door in reference to a car break-in on that street, there is no need for police to verify that footage would be helpful to solving that incident, or whether the footage would even be used for that particular incident and not for other purposes. If a person agrees to share their footage with police, police then have that footage forever and can share it with whoever they want without oversight or restrictions. This means footage from your door, requested by local police to catch an alleged thief in the neighborhood, could end up being used by another law enforcement agency for a completely attenuated purpose, such as identifying someone for deportation—without your knowledge or direct consent.
In addition to the afterlives of footage shared with police, Markey also confirmed that the company does not take seriously the privacy of people who walk by their cameras every day. Ring has no way of protecting the privacy of neighbors or pedestrians if a Ring camera records footage from a public sidewalk or a neighbor’s window. And, particularly pertinent in light of the company's touting of footage of children trick-or-treating on Halloween, the company has no special provisions governing the collection of footage that contains children.
In light of Ring’s concerning response to Markey’s letter, as well as recent news of a now-patched vulnerability that left Ring users vulnerable to hackers, more senators have signed on to an in-depth exploratory letter to Amazon. Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delaware, Gary Peters of Michigan, and Ed Markey sent a followup letter to Amazon emphasizing that they are worried about the protection of Ring users’ data and are “concerned about media reports suggesting a lack of respect of the privacy of Ring customers.” Specifically, the letter details concerns that Ring employees in Ukraine were given “virtually unfettered access” to every piece of footage taken from every Ring camera around the world.
Ring’s business model has been a particularly challenging privacy concern to address. Because Ring sells itself as a personal home security system, but has the ability to function like a large-scale CCTV network accessible to police, Amazon can fall back on the idea that consumers chose to build this surveillance network, one porch at a time. When EFF brought its concerns about police partnerships and the harms of ubiquitous surveillance directly to Ring, our concerns were dismissed. That’s why we launched a campaign to get the company’s very visible spokesperson, Shaquille O’Neal, to sit down with us to discuss the inadvertent harms that Ring can inflict upon communities.
We hope that with the increased attention politicians are giving to Amazon’s Ring, legislation to reign in and oversee ubiquitous surveillance and police partnerships will not be far behind.