Like many people, you may have had a package stolen from your porch. With the increasing prevalence of package delivery courtesy of Amazon, the phenomenon has become a startling trend. As a direct result, Ring doorbells have popped up as a popular solution.
These Ring video doorbells quickly became prevalent among affluent and/or suburban communities. And after Amazon acquired Ring in 2018 for $839 million, things really took off for the company for good reason. Users of Ring can tap into their security camera at any time, accessing a live feed of their porch. That’s a level of security that totally disrupted the home surveillance industry. But it’s important to remember that it’s exactly that — surveillance — and that by purchasing Ring, Amazon is effectively creating the largest real-time surveillance network ever conceived. The secret ingredient behind Ring’s accelerated reach is the 600+ partnerships they’ve made with police departments.
This collaboration is a two-way street: the police promote the product as a highly-effective method of crime prevention, and in doing so, they are given access to Ring’s Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal (LENP). The department offers giveaways and discounts to move the product. Meanwhile, the police start using Ring’s LENP, an interactive map which allows them to request camera footage directly from residents without obtaining a warrant. Residents are not required to provide the footage when asked, but resistance is relatively futile. If someone refuses to provide footage, the police can reach out to Ring directly and get the file pulled. Once the police can indicate probable cause that criminal activity was captured, they can get a court warrant and obtain that footage.
Ring works in tandem with the Neighbors app, which allows people to upload footage from Ring products or other security cameras for public viewing. Posts are sorted into different categories like crime, safety, or suspicious. When seeking to partner with a local police department, Ring will show the department how many Ring and Neighbors users are active in a given community. In some cases, they’ll even show maps of the active cameras in their jurisdiction. Using a Ring doorbell is voluntary, and consumers understand, for the most part, what they’re signing up for. But the unintended consequence, unfortunately, is that consumers are making a decision on behalf of everyone around them. Anyone walking in front of the camera is being recorded, so neighbors, delivery drivers, and passersby are tracked and logged without consent.
Here’s where it gets spooky: the technology’s object and facial recognition software is slowly developing behind the scenes. Some Android users have been given the option of getting alerted for “People Only.” That means that Ring doorbells can already discern humans from objects or animals. The next step is facial recognition, a feature that Ring has already mentioned working on in the past, specifically in regards to creating “watch lists.” Essentially, any faces picked up by the camera would be checked against Ring’s internal directory of criminals and past offenders, alerting the homeowner when a “suspicious” person is near their house. Companies buying and selling data about our lives is intrusive enough, but imagine what could be done with facial recognition data. And considering the proliferation of data breaches, it’s likely that information could fall into the wrong hands.
It should come as no surprise that various groups have come out in opposition against this practice. In August a digital-rights activist group called Fight for the Future launched a campaign to help people demand that their local governments and police departments stop partnering with Ring. In October, 36 different civil rights groups signed an open letter demanding an end to these partnerships as well. The letter also asked for new regulations and a formal investigation into Ring’s practices. If these practices are to continue, consumers need transparency as to what is being done with the footage. In the meantime, we recommend all consumers consider all of the implications of installing a Ring doorbell in their home. Amazon’s ability to track all of your daily activity through an interconnected web of smart TVs, speakers, and cameras is only strengthening.
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