More than 30 digital rights and civil liberties organisations have demanded that local, state, and federal officials end partnerships between Ring, Amazon’s camera-enabled doorbell company, and over 400 law enforcement agencies in the US. “These partnerships pose a serious threat to civil rights and liberties, especially for black and brown communities already targeted and surveilled by law enforcement,” the digital rights organisations wrote in an open letter.

This development comes after a report in The Washington Post said that more than 400 police forces had partnered with Amazon-owned Ring to get access to homeowners’ camera footage. Amazon had acquired Ring last year for a billion dollars.

Signatories of the letter include RAICES, The Tor Project, CREDO Action, Fight for the Future, Media Justice along with organisations that fight for the rights of people of colour, such as, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Color of Change among others.

What does the letter demand?

  • Pass surveillance oversight ordinances “that will deter police departments from entering into such agreements in the future”.
  • Congress should investigate Ring’s practices.

How does Ring work? According to recent data, more than 500 law enforcement agencies are active on Rings’ Neighbors app. According to the app’s website, it provides real-time crime and safety alerts from users of the app and also by local law enforcement agencies. Users of Ring’s doorbell camera are automatically enrolled on the app. Users can also post videos from their home camera and comment on others’ videos on the app, according to Vox.

How do law enforcement agencies use Ring data? As part of this partnership, law enforcement officers can contact Ring owners and ask for video footage while investigating a crime without a warrant. Certain cities are also subsidising Ring products using taxpayers’ money: Rancho Palos Verdes, a city in California, has allocated $100,000 of taxpayers’ money for this program

Why do the civil rights’ organisations have a problem with the Ring-police partnerships?

  • Police officers are promoting Ring’s products: Amazon provides officers with talking points to promote Ring’s technology and products to residents, and requests departments market the products at city events. These partnerships are turning “police departments into marketing agencies and police officers into salespeople for Amazon”. As per a Gizmodo report, Ring has barred police officials from using words like “surveillance” while describing their products and the company has a final say over any statements police issue about its products.
  • Lack of accountability: There is no oversight and accountability. Amazon’s technology creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely. Law enforcement agencies can use this data to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or share with other agencies like ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or the FBI, the letter said.
  • Ring contractors have access to users’ feeds: Ring also gave contractors in the US and Ukraine (according to The Verge, Ring founder Jamie Siminoff opened a satellite office in Ukraine to save money) access to customers’ live camera feeds, the letter noted. According to a report in The Information from December 2018, Siminoff allowed his employees in Ukraine to go through customers’ feeds in order to strengthen Ring’s software. “Additionally, the technology has no end-to-end encryption leaving this extremely private and sensitive footage vulnerable to cyber-attacks, stalkers, or foreign governments,” it added.
  • Amazon could use Ring feeds to strengthen its facial recognition system: Noting that Ring’s terms of service mentions that the company can “access and use your User Recordings” for “developing new Products and Services,” the signatory organisations feared that Amazon could integrate facial recognition into Ring cameras. It is worth noting that according to a report in The Washington Post, Amazon is potentially creating a ‘database of suspicious persons’ using facial recognition technology. Amazon Rekognition, the company’s face identification software, is already being licensed by several law enforcement agencies in the US, according to Cnet. Ring hasn’t disclosed if it has or will integrate facial recognition technology, Rekognition or any other, to its products. The letter said that this compounds existing civil liberties concerns and expands suspected criminality centred in racial profiling and gender bias.

These concerns have been raised before: This isn’t the first instance where Ring’s partnership with police departments in the US has come under scrutiny. In September 2019, Massachusetts’ Senator, Edward J. Markey, said that these partnerships “raise serious privacy and civil liberties concerns”. He noted that Ring’s cameras sweep up footage of bystanders who may not have consented to be recorded on a security camera.

While Ring is not currently available in India, law enforcement agencies in India can also seek access to footage recorded by CCTV cameras in and around your homes and offices. However, unlike in the case of Ring, these Indian officials need to have a warrant in order to access those feeds.