Amazon’s Ring freaks out privacy advocates

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles September 16, 2019
Amazon Ring's potential for trampling on privacy rights has caught Congress's attention.
amazon ring

Amazon Ring’s cozy relationship with law enforcement and its potential use of facial recognition software has finally attracted the attention of Congress.

Ring is among the most popular of a new generation of home security products that monitor your home through a combination of contact and motion sensors as well as video cameras and a doorbell that lets you see, or review who is at your door or stole your FedEx delivery. If you want to pay a little extra, all of this can be linked to an inexpensive professional monitoring service.

It’s a great product, easy to install, works as advertised and is cheaper than many of its rivals. More than 10 million Ring doorbells have been installed worldwide. I have one.

So, why are so many digital rights and privacy advocates screaming bloody murder about Ring’s marketing and sales practices as information about the company’s contracts with law enforcement agencies across the U.S. have come to light?

The main concern is about its owner—Amazon like other big tech monopolies—has lost a lot of trust with customers over the past three years. Ring was acquired last summer by Amazon in a $1 billion deal. 

Almost certainly not by coincidence, Amazon manufactures one of the leading and most controversial facial recognition products called Rekognition which, it claims, can track and analyze hundreds of people in a photo using a database with tens of millions of faces. Rekognition is wildly popular with law enforcement and is currently in use by police departments in Florida and Washington, and has reprtedly been offered to the Department of Homeland Security to identify immigrants.

The difficulties that facial recognition software has identifying people of color have been have been well-documented.  And it certainly didn’t help when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a study last summer that said Rekognition inaccurately labeled some members of the 115th U.S. Congress as criminals, a label Rekognition was twice as likely to bestow on members of Congress who are people of color than their white counterparts.

Ring doesn’t use facial recognition in its current form…yet. But it easily could, raising additional concerns about the company’s surveillance ending up in the hands of law enforcement should it begin incorporating biometric information.

The ACLU says facial recognition could be abused by law enforcement, posing a "grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants." The cities of San Francisco and Oakland have already banned the use of facial recognition software by law enforcement and Massachusetts is considering banning it across the state.

The fact that Ring has recently admitted—under considerable pressure—that it has formed “partnerships” with more than 400 law enforcement agencies after spending months of stonewalling, strongly suggests that Ring is heading in that direction. These “partnerships allow officers to easily request video footage from Ring users in the investigation of potential crimes.

Ring has built a feedback loop for police (and a clever marketing ploy for itself) through a social app called Neighbors that allows customers to not only monitor their own property, but also to share information about suspicious-looking activities in the rest of the block.

Departments with contracts have access to an online portal called Neighbors where they can request footage from the company’s customers within a certain radius of a police-provided address who then receive a message asking them to “Share Your Ring Videos Now”.  Bottom line: the app allows all Ring users in a particular area to share their videos, with each other and the police--to create a private neighborhood watch.  Ring’s terms of service gives the company an irrevocable, perpetual license to the video content users post on Neighbors.

Add facial recognition to this mix and the cops will never have to leave the station which, of course, is why they love it.

Congress weighs in

Last week, Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey sent a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos expressing concerns about how footage from the company’s doorbell cameras is accessed by authorities. Markey wrote: 

Although Amazon markets Ring as America’s ‘new neighborhood watch,’ the technology captures and stores video from millions of households and sweeps up footage of countless bystanders who may be unaware that they are being filmed. I am particularly alarmed to learn that Ring is pursuing facial recognition technology with the potential to flag certain individuals as suspicious based on their biometric information.

The scope and nature of Ring’s partnership with police forces raise additional civil liberties concern The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities.

The document also includes a list of 10 questions regarding Ring’s handling of user data for which Markey requests a response by September 26:

  • Which are all of the law enforcement entities--including local police departments and federal agencies — that have had or currently have access to video footage from Ring products? Please provide a copy of a standard video-footage-sharing agreement between Ring and a local police department.
  • Does Ring prohibit police department partners with access to users’ footage from sharing that footage with other entities? If not, why not? Is Ring aware of any instances in which police department partners have shared users’ footage with third parties? If so, please describe in detail all such instances.
  • Will Ring commit to reviewing its consent prompts for video-footage sharing in consultation with experts and making any necessary revisions to ensure that Ring does not use manipulative or coercive language with its users?
  • Does Ring require police department partners to institute security safeguards to ensure that the Ring footage to which they have access is not breached or otherwise accessed by unauthorized entities? If so, please describe these security requirements. If not, why not?
  • Has Ring consulted with experts in civil liberties, criminal justice, and other relevant fields to conduct a review of its internet-connected doorbells and its social network, Neighbors, to ensure that these offerings do not present unique threats to people of color or other populations? If not, why not? If yes, please share the list of consulted parties.
  • Do you have plans to coordinate law enforcement’s use of Amazon’s Rekognition product with forthcoming facial recognition offerings from Ring.

My take

We have yet another example of a tech monopoly being disingenuous about its intentions which is another way of saying it’s economical with the truth. Amazon clearly bought Ring in order to create a huge private surveillance system that would ultimately incorporate facial recognition and appeal to law enforcement and spying agencies.  Why they simply don’t say “so what, it’s legal and we’re going to keep doing it until someone makes us stop” makes their marketing look decidedly creepy .