More than 400 police departments across the country have partnered with Ring, tech giant Amazon’s “smart” doorbell program, to create a troubling new video surveillance system. Ring films and records any interaction or movement happening at the user’s front door, and alerts users’ phones. These partnerships expand the web of government surveillance of public places, degrade the public’s trust in civic institutions, purposely breed paranoia, and deny citizens the transparency necessary to ensure accountability and create regulations.
You can read more about EFF’s thoughts on how this technology threatens privacy, encourages racial profiling, and stifles freedom here.
Amazon is aggressively pursuing these worrisome partnerships with police throughout the country. Yet it should be communities themselves, and not spy tech vendors, who ultimately decide whether their police may use new systems of surveillance of public places.
Reporting in CNET reveals that Amazon persistently reached out to the Chula Vista, California, police department and engaged in a multi-month campaign to convince the city of more than 270,000 to implement the partnership.
In an email to the Chula Vista Police Department, a Ring outreach coordinator played on fears of rising property crime in the town as a way to pitch the potential partnership. They wrote, “I recently came across this news clip of an uptick in home break-ins in Chula Vista… As an extension of Ring’s Neighborhoods initiative, I’m reaching out to share an offer to all public safety agencies that actively participate in either crime prevention or community policing.” When the police department did not respond, the Ring representative followed up to offer discounts and even a donation of a free video doorbell.
What emerges is a partnership that allows police access to a widespread surveillance network, and coaching from Amazon on how to gain access to that footage and how to talk to the public. In return, Amazon gets a big boost in its efforts to sell millions of cameras.
Here are five specific concerns about Ring’s spreading partnership with law enforcement:
1. City money is subsidizing the cost of Amazon products
Reporters have shown that municipalities are paying Amazon up to $100,000 to reduce costs of Ring cameras by $50 or $100 for city residents. In addition, cities are promoting Ring at city events, which helps Amazon sell more cameras and ultimately make more profit.
The Monitoring Association, an international trade organization for surveillance equipment, is concerned about Ring’s police partnerships. The organization's President, Ivan Spector, told CNET, “We are troubled by recent reports of agreements that are said to drive product-specific promotion, without alerting consumers about these marketing relationships... This lack of transparency goes against our standards as an industry, diminishes public trust, and takes advantage of these public servants.”
2. There is insufficient transparency about the partnerships
There’s a reason why Amazon was able to build up hundreds of police partnerships before journalists and civil liberties advocates were able to identify the widespread implications of such relationships. Reporting reveals that statements put out by local governments were written by, or approved, by Ring. This means that a large multi-national corporation whose objective is to maximize profits dictates what your local police department can and cannot say about the efficacy or necessity of Ring.
For example, Ring dictated almost the entirety of a press release from the Bloomfield, New Jersey, police department—and then, the company still required the town to make several corrections to unsanctioned additions.
It took reporting from multiple news outlets for the public to learn about the extent of these partnerships, which have rapidly spread without sufficient community input and local government control. The decision whether to plug the police department into thousands of new surveillance cameras should be made through an open, democratic process, and not just by corporate sales staff and police executives.
3. Police sell Ring products
The Ring-police partnerships turns what should be our most trusted civil servants into salespeople. As part of the partnerships, both via town-wide discounts and as part of Ring’s approved police talking points, local law enforcement are expected to promote the adoption of Ring and its accompanying app, Neighbors.
This raises the very serious question: do police think you need a camera on your front door because your property is in danger, or are they encouraged by Amazon to try to make a sale?
This arrangement will deepen the public’s distrust of police officers, and threatens to make citizens wary of any public safety advice coming from police. How would people know if safety tips are motivated by an attempt to sow fear, and by extension, sell cameras and build an accessible surveillance network?
4. Amazon’s communication experts coach police on how to get your footage
Ring seems to have anticipated public concerns about a large network of cameras, promoted by police, whose footage is stored by a large corporation.
Ring provides police departments with incredibly detailed talking points and response guides for questions the public may have about Ring, their privacy, and the nature of the police-Ring partnerships. Some of the questions Ring anticipated are, “What is the partnership benefit?”, “Is law enforcement able to access user data or camera through Neighbors?”, and “Why is law enforcements participation on the app useful?”
Perhaps most troubling, Amazon coaches police on how to best talk residents into handing over their footage so police don’t have to get a warrant. One method cited is increasing a department’s participation on social media and its community outreach. These are things that have supposedly helped police in other cities raise their “opt in rate.”
5. Police have your Ring camera on their map
Police and Amazon know where Ring cameras are in a town through the “Neighbors portal” map interface. This facilitates police requests for footage from a particular camera. Amazon has also reportedly created maps based on addresses given during purchase at events where Amazon sold Ring at a discount. As part of the agreement for discount events in one community, Amazon promised to “provide the City with an address report for the products purchased in order to help the Arcadia Police Department track the location of Ring Video Doorbells and other Ring security camera equipment, and assess the level of community interest.”
As more reporting continues to come out about the privacy hazards of Ring and its police partnerships, more communities will likely step up to demand community control over whether police so dramatically expand their access to video transparency. In the meantime, it's important for residents to think twice about any technologies that facilitate the proliferation of police surveillance on the streets where we protest, canvas for political candidates, and move freely every day.