Amazon Ring has announced that it will change the way police can request footage from millions of doorbell cameras in communities across the country. Rather than the current system, in which police can send automatic bulk email requests to individual Ring users in an area of interest up to a square half mile, police will now publicly post their requests to Ring’s accompanying Neighbors app. Users of that app will see a “Request for Assistance” on their feed, unless they opt out of seeing such requests, and then Ring customers in the area of interest (still up to a square half mile) can respond by reviewing and providing their footage.
Because only a portion of Ring users also are Neighbors users, and some of them may opt out of receiving police requests, this new system may reduce the number of people who receive police requests, though we wonder whether Ring will now push more of its users to register for the app.
This new model also may increase transparency over how police officers use and abuse the Ring system, especially as to people of color, immigrants, and protesters. Previously, in order to learn about police requests to Ring users, investigative reporters and civil liberties groups had to file public records requests with police departments--which consumed significant time and often yielded little information from recalcitrant agencies. Through this labor-intensive process, EFF revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department targeted Black Lives Matter protests in May and June 2020 with bulk Ring requests for doorbell camera footage that likely included First Amendment protected activities. Now, users will be able to see every digital request a police department has made to residents for Ring footage by scrolling through a department’s public page on the app.
But making it easier to monitor historical requests can only do so much. It certainly does not address the larger problem with Ring and Neighbors: the network is predicated on perpetuating irrational fear of neighborhood crime, often yielding disproportionate scrutiny against people of color, all for the purposes of selling more cameras. Ring does so through police partnerships, which now encompass 1 in every 10 police departments in the United States. At their core, these partnerships facilitate bulk requests from police officers to Ring customers for their camera footage, built on a growing Ring surveillance network of millions of public-facing cameras. EFF adamantly opposes these Ring-police partnerships and advocates for their dissolution.
Nor does new transparency about bulk officer-to-resident requests through Ring erase the long history of secrecy about these shady partnerships. For example, Amazon has provided free Ring cameras to police, and limited what police were allowed to say about Ring, even including the existence of the partnership.
Notably, Amazon has moved Ring functionality to its Neighbors app. Neighbors is a problematic technology. Like its peers Nextdoor and Citizen, it encourages its users to report supposedly suspicious people--often resulting in racially biased posts that endanger innocent residents and passersby.
Ring’s small reforms invite bigger questions: Why does a customer-focused technology company need to develop and maintain a feature for law enforcement in the first place? Why must Ring and other technology companies continue to offer police free features to facilitate surveillance and the transfer of information from users to the government?
Here’s some free advice for Ring: Want to make your product less harmful to vulnerable populations? Stop facilitating their surveillance and harassment at the hands of police.