From voice-activated speakers that can scrape the web for all kinds of info to home security systems that trigger email alerts when motion detectors are set off and smartphone apps that constantly accumulate user location data, it’s undeniable that there are more devices collecting more information on more everyday people than at any other point in human history.
One of the most well-known vendors of high-tech, consumer-grade surveillance devices is Ring, the California company that started selling web-connected doorbells with video cameras attached back in 2013. After being acquired by Amazon in 2018, Ring is now a household name, and represents just one of the many tentacles that make up Amazon’s global data collection infrastructure.
Despite being marketed as a harmless, handy way to help catch package thieves — likely a big reason why Amazon was so keen to acquire the company in the first place — and to keep neighborhoods crime-free, Ring recording devices have received increasing scrutiny from surveillance scholars and digital rights advocates, especially given Ring’s strategy of closely aligning itself with local law enforcement agencies across the country.
“It raises alarm bells for me as someone who has watched the long history of the ways that surveillance has exacerbated existing disparities in our society,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights nonprofit Fight for the Future, headquartered in Worcester, Massachusetts. “The Big Brother panopticon is not just falling out of the sky one day — we’re sort of slowly building it ourselves every day by purchasing these devices that watch and listen to us.”
Fight for the Future has been working to raise awareness about the possibility that police could take footage, combine it with other technology such as advanced facial recognition and use it to track people at troubling level of precision. Of particular concern is that it could be used to record the movements of participants in protests throughout America.
Once affixed to a user’s front door, a Ring doorbell automatically records short videos whenever it is rung or whenever it detects motion in front of the camera’s sensor, which are viewable through an online web portal. Footage can then be shared through Neighbors, a smartphone app launched by Ring in 2018 that lets residents talk with folks in their neighborhood through a Facebook-like social media feed. Users can anonymously discuss crime in their area and watch videos of package thievery and other “suspicious” activity shared by Ring device owners and others — the app is free to use and doesn’t require a Ring device to sign up.
Across the country, law enforcement agencies and local fire departments have partnered with Ring to access the Neighbors app, which they can use to send out targeted alerts about crime in a given area or to request video footage recorded by Ring devices. Law enforcement partners are also able to ask Ring to send requests for footage en masse to all users within the vicinity of a crime being investigated. According to Ring’s map of “public safety agencies,” at least 1,424 law enforcement agencies and 53 fire departments have partnered with Ring and have registered accounts on the Neighbors app.
“I think it’s a very beneficial partnership for law enforcement,” said the Houston Police Department’s Lt. Johnny Gonzales, who serves as the liaison between HPD and Ring. “It’s very helpful for the agencies to be able to help solve crimes in the communities, and it also gives a chance for the community to assist us and be involved in their neighborhoods.”
HPD became an official Ring partner agency back in January of 2019, but not all local law enforcement agencies followed suit. In June 2018, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office pulled out of a planned partnership with Ring, citing concerns about the privacy of county residents.
Ring argues that they take user privacy seriously. Its policy on video requests states that the company will only share recorded footage with law enforcement if the device’s owner agrees to make it available, or if the agency in question provides a warrant to Ring.
Gonzales said that HPD has made 19 successful requests to Ring users asking to see their recordings to help investigate a crime, but explained that number only includes formal requests through the Neighbors app and with Ring’s assistance, and not instances where an officer is granted access to footage from a Ring owner after asking in person. He could neither confirm nor deny whether or not HPD has gained access to video footage through presenting a warrant directly to Ring, and said that he isn’t aware of any Ring footage being used by HPD in connection with protest-related investigations or in conjunction with facial recognition software.
A Ring spokesperson told the Houston Press it was against company policy to share data on the number of Ring devices and Neighbors app users in the greater Houston area. Gonzales was also unable to provide statistics on just how many crimes HPD has solved thanks to getting access to video from Ring doorbells.
While people caught on camera by a Ring device don’t have a legal expectation of privacy since they are being filmed in public, some privacy advocates still worry about how the increasing prevalence of surveillance devices like Ring doorbells contribute to what they see as the concerted efforts of Amazon, Facebook, Google and other web giants to delve deeper and deeper into the private lives of their users by amassing as much data as possible.
“I think the danger is looking at the moments of collection in isolation rather than in the whole universe of data that’s being collected in all kinds of different ways all the time,” said Emily Berman, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center who studies government surveillance.
Berman thinks Ring and its parent company Amazon owe the public a better explanation about how the data they collect could be combined with other data sources — such as cell phone location information, social media activity logs or facial recognition software — to make sure users can make informed decisions about their use of data collection technology like Ring doorbells. She gave the example of Ring video footage that catches a person which could then be cross-referenced with law enforcement-accessible data like toll road payment records or license plate scanners. This would allow police to track individuals to a degree that many Americans don’t realize is possible.
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“At some point, there’s enough data that it’s not just that someone has been identified at a certain place and a certain time, but their entire life has been mapped out,” Berman said.
“We need to sort of be looking at the whole picture of how surveillance technologies fit together and asking ourselves, in the end, what kind of world do we want to live in,” said Greer. In her view, Ring’s explicit attempts to entangle itself with government agencies like local police departments are part of Amazon’s broader strategy of becoming so intertwined with so many facets of everyday life that by the time lawmakers or residents have realized the potential harms of one company knowing so many intimate details about so many lives, it’ll be too late to stop them.
“The more Amazon can become inextricable from these institutions...it can be hard to discern where Amazon ends and the government begins,” Greer said, “and I think that’s exactly the way they want it.”