Editor’s note: Since the original publication of this article, more information has continued to come out regarding privacy violations and lax civil rights protections related to Ring products. We will continue to update this post with links to this information below as it comes out.
When it comes to protecting your home, many of the technologies and methods available involve some type of a compromise between privacy and security.
Even something as simple as joining a neighborhood social media community (such as Nextdoor or a Facebook group) to keep track of safety concerns in your area involves sharing at least a few details about yourself with neighbors as well as with the companies supporting those online communities.
There is no “right” level of compromise between privacy and security, because the line is drawn in different places for different people based on what they are comfortable with. However, it’s important to educate yourself about what compromises you are actually making when you use certain home security products and services.
To that end, this month on our blog we take a look at the rapidly expanding partnership between the popular Ring video doorbell (which is available from Dynamark Security) and local police departments, including the Richmond police department.
Nationwide, there are now over 400 law enforcement agencies participating in this partnership, and it’s been getting a lot of coverage in both local and national media. Some people have been raising concerns about privacy and security in relation to these partnerships. Dynamark Security takes your privacy and security needs very seriously, and so we provide the information below in the interest of helping you choose a home security solution that you are comfortable with.
About the Partnership
The partnership between Ring (which is owned by Amazon) and police departments involves providing law enforcement access to the online portal showing the location of each Ring doorbell camera connected to Amazon’s video recording service (specific addresses are hidden). In the event of an incident, police can request permission from the Ring owners in the general area to access any video recordings (which are stored in the cloud on Amazon’s servers) that might help them investigate the incident.
Some police departments offer residents free or discounted Ring video doorbells and encourage people to download the Ring crime-reporting app (which they call “Neighbors”). Reportedly, recipients of free Ring doorbells in some precincts must give police access to the doorbell security footage as part of the agreement.
Every partnership seems to be slightly different. Some police departments receive credits toward more Ring cameras every time a resident downloads the Ring app. The Tulsa, Oklahoma police department (and presumably others) offer discount codes and links for people to download the app.
The Richmond Police Department Partnership with Ring
The Richmond Police Department is among the 400+ departments who formalized relationships with Ring and Amazon. In this agreement, for every 20 new subscriptions to the Neighbor app, the Richmond Police and Metro Crime Stoppers will give away one Ring video doorbell.
Interim Chief William Smith said the technology already helped them identify a person suspected of stealing packages from doorsteps all over Richmond. Richmond police are hopeful the new network of security cameras on Ring doorbells will help them prevent or solve other crimes.
How the partnership works
How do police departments intend to use Ring surveillance footage? When a crime is reported, police can send a notice to everyone in the area, via the Neighborhood app. People with Ring cameras can opt to share the video footage from the time the crime occurred.
Currently, police do not have access to live footage. They can only access video footage that people choose to share with them, and users can opt to share anonymously. People can also use the Neighbors app to share anonymous tips with the police department.
What are the privacy concerns?
Many are raising privacy and civil liberty concerns about Ring, Amazon, and police department partnerships. The Ring video doorbell captures and stores video footage from millions of houses. Countless bystanders, neighbors, and innocent passers-by are likely unaware they are being recorded. Here are the specific concerns that people have been raising:
Concerns about neighbors becoming informants
While Ring’s mission is to create safer neighborhoods and protect homes from criminals, legal experts and privacy advocates are concerned about the partnership with police departments because of the potential threat to civil liberties and turning neighbors into informants.
How would this happen? Well, as it turns out, only about one-quarter of the posts in the stream on the “Neighbors” app are crime-related. Most posts are from hyper-vigilant neighbors reporting mysterious noises, visitors they don’t recognize, and missing pets.
It’s one thing when a “nosy neighbor” posts a comment about a person they consider “suspicious” in a neighborhood social media group, but with the Neighbors app they can now post a video of that person, who could potentially be identified using facial recognition technology being developed by Amazon.
Since police departments have access to the app, these supposedly “suspicious” people (or look-alikes misidentified by imperfect facial recognition technology) could theoretically be put on some type of watch list or database without their knowledge and without any type of due process.
Concerns about who will access video footage
Ring and Amazon say they will not release video footage from a device in response to a subpoena, but they would comply if officials served a warrant. However, Ring users consent to allow Amazon to release video footage to police, government officials, and third parties in their terms of service.
Amazon/Ring says it will release the footage “if the company thinks it’s necessary to comply with legal process or reasonable government request.” They can also store video footage that was deleted by the user “to comply with legal obligations.” That means your private surveillance footage is not really yours–or private.
Concerns about data security
Amazon does not have an excellent track record for keeping their customer’s personal information secure, warrant or not!
For example, they had a “technical issue” in 2018 that released customer names and email addresses to its website. Just last month (August 2019), angry victims filed a lawsuit against Capital One and Amazon Web Services (Capital One’s cloud provider) after a data breach put the personal information of 106 million people at risk, including social security numbers, bank accounts, and other sensitive information.
These are just the unintentional instances of privacy violations by Amazon. It has also been revealed that Amazon’s Alexa assistant often records people even if they didn’t intentionally turn it on—and that those recordings may be stored indefinitely in the cloud.
Concerns about how involved Ring is in the police partnerships
Ring/Amazon is continuing its aggressive expansion of their connections with police departments. Civil liberties advocates raise concerns about how these partnerships are developing. For example, Ring is writing or approving many press releases and statements for the police departments. Ring has also reportedly provided “approved police talking points” and scripts to local law enforcement agencies to not only sell the devices but to encourage people to release video footage without the need for a warrant.
Furthermore, the partnership between a private company and public servants, like police officers, raises many questions.
- Is it proper for police to promote one home security product over another not because it’s necessarily better, but simply because they have financial incentives to do so?
- Would it be bad for consumers if one company (Amazon) is able to leverage its relationships with police departments to create a near-monopoly on video doorbells?
- While the motive of police departments to promote use of Ring video doorbells is to solve crimes and make neighborhoods safer, what are Amazon’s motives? Could they be hoping that people who install a free Ring they got from the local police department sign up for other Amazon services?
Concerns about facial recognition software
The Ring doorbell is not the only way Amazon and police departments are connected. Amazon has developed a facial-recognition software, called Rekognition. Police nationwide rely on this software to identify and catch criminals. However, Rekognition’s accuracy is highly disputed, and experts are concerned about the consequences of mistaken identity.
A growing number of defense attorneys, artificial intelligence researchers, and civil rights advocates are raising concerns about the expanding reach of unregulated facial recognition technology and other forms of artificial intelligence being integrated into law enforcement.
Some experts are raising questions about how Amazon might try to merge the facial recognition software with their growing web of video doorbells and other surveillance equipment. A private company that has both facial recognition software and access to video footage recorded by millions of motion-activated cameras is essentially an unregulated surveillance and data-gathering network. Are we ready to trust a private company (or the government, for that matter) with that kind of power?
What does this mean for you?
Video doorbells are convenient and practical. They are an excellent product to have, especially for people who run AirBnb’s or have many visitors, guests, or delivery people coming and going around their home. However, at least in the case of the Ring product, using it can come with certain compromises to privacy.
Dynamark Security does install video doorbells from Ring and their competitor Skybell. We also install other types of home security cameras made by other manufactures. We believe everyone should make a thoughtful, informed decision about each security device you install around your home. There are benefits and disadvantages to each one, and we are here to help you find the right security systems and methods that meet your needs.