Amazon’s Ring continues its partnerships with an increasing number of police departments throughout the country. Amazon has partnered with over 2,000 police departments in agreements that allow officers to request access to Ring video doorbell footage or obtain warrants for captured video, threatening the privacy of not only Ring users, but their neighbors as well. The Intercept reports that Ring even has “in-house law enforcement liaisons” that assist officers with sending bulk video requests, encouraging use of the Ring companion app, Neighbors, and pushing Ring doorbells on consumers.
Many of the implications here are clear, but one of many specific active threats this poses has to do with the policing of protests. Allowing police to identify protestors gives them reach that was previously inconceivable. According Sam Biddle’s February 16, 2020 article in The Intercept, emails exchanged by Los Angeles Police Department personnel show that officers were requesting footage from Ring owners captured during demonstrations in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. That same year, local law enforcement agencies made requests for over 22,000 incidents, with almost 2,000 of them being court orders, search warrants, or subpoenas used after Ring owners actually denied the initial request, as reported by the Verge.
Furthermore, officers are also encouraged to be active on the Ring doorbell companion app called Neighbors, through which they can interact with residents of specific neighborhoods and ask users for their Ring doorbell footage. The problem with this brand of police engagement within the Neighbors app is that it encourages users to share with the community any and all somewhat suspicious footage, even if that footage only captures innocuous activity.
In a 2019 report, Vice’s Motherboard reported that as more and more community members invest in Ring doorbells, their police department gets credit from Ring to apply toward getting free doorbells to give out to more community members, creating a “self-perpetuating surveillance network: more people download Neighbors, more people get Ring, surveillance footage proliferates, and police can request whatever they want.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that Ring is also looking to update its video doorbells with increasingly invasive and expansive features such as face recognition software, license plate scanning, and 911 alerts that would notify Ring users of local 911 calls. Such features not only undermine public trust in police but come with grave safety and privacy implications as more and more civilians install Ring doorbells in their homes.
This story did receive some corporate media coverage, although much of it failed to look at the issue critically. The Washington Post, owned by then-Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, ran an August 29, 2019 report about Amazon Ring partnerships with police, but neglected to consider the dangers of easy police access to internet-connected doorbell camera footage. The collaboration between Amazon Ring and police has been reported on most extensively and critically by independent news outlets.
Sam Biddle, “LAPD Sought Ring Home Security Video Related to Black Lives Matter Protests,” The Intercept, February 16, 2021, https://theintercept.com/2021/02/16/lapd-ring-surveillance-black-lives-matter-protests/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=The%20Intercept%20Newsletter.
Adi Robertson, “Los Angeles police used Amazon Ring footage to investigate police brutality protests,” The Verge, February 17, 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/2/17/22287287/los-angeles-police-department-ring-anti-racism-protest-video-surveillance-request.
Jason Kelley and Matthew Guariglia, “Amazon Ring Must End Its Dangerous Partnerships With Police,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, June 10, 2020, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/06/amazon-ring-must-end-its-dangerous-partnerships-police.
Student Researcher: Zac Heren (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)