Amazon Ring Gave Doorbell Footage To US Police Without Owners’ Consent

Amazon could be embroiled in another privacy row in the US over surveillance data captured by its Ring doorbells.

The Amazon division confirmed in a letter to a US Senator that Ring has provided surveillance footage to law enforcement without a warrant or the consent of doorbell-owners 11 times this year alone.

Ring was of course acquired by Amazon for $1 billion back in 2018, and has continued to grow in popularity as more and more homeowners look to bolster their residential security measures.

Privacy worries

But Ring’s popularity has not been without some controversies.

In January 2020 for example, an investigation by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned the Ring Android app was “packed with third-party trackers” that was sending out a “plethora of customers’ personally identifiable information (PII)” to five analytics and marketing companies.

Then in March 2020 privacy concerns was raised again after it was reported that Amazon kept records of every motion detected by its Ring doorbells.

But by far the biggest worry for privacy campaigners is that Ring’s products are being used by increasing numbers of law enforcement agencies in the US to facilitate surveillance in cities and towns.

In November 2020 privacy activists expressed alarm when police in Jackson, Mississippi requested access to resident’s smart doorbells.

Privacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said at the time that Jackson police were conducting a 45-day pilot program to live stream the Amazon Ring cameras of participating residents.

Essentially, the police in Mississippi’s capital city had asked residents to connect their smart doorbells to a real-time surveillance hub, in an effort to fight crime.

Ring has also demonstrated a flying security camera drone, but this has not been released  by the firm.

Image credit: Amazon

Another concern centres of an Amazon proposal to turn every Echo speaker and Ring security camera or doorbell in the United States into a shared wireless network (Ring Sidewalk).

American users were given just one week to opt out of the proposal, and Amazon is facing legal action over the matter.

No warrants

Now Amazon’s VP of Public Policy Brian Huseman responded to questions by US Senator Ed Markey in the 1 July letter, which was then made public by his office on Wednesday.

The letter shows that Ring frequently makes its own “good-faith determinations” as to whether to provide surveillance data to law enforcement absent a warrant or the consent of the doorbell owner.

“Ring doorbells have always had audio capabilities, which help customers better understand what is happening on their property, “ Huseman said in the letter.

Huseman then revealed that its ‘Neighbors Public Safety Service’ currently has 2,161 law enforcement agencies and 455 fire departments enrolled, who can request Ring data.

When questioned if some police departments circumvented Ring’s official processes to access
users’ recordings, Huseman responded with the following.

“Ring introduced Request for Assistance posts on Neighbors to promote transparency in how public safety agencies ask their communities for information or video as part of an active investigation,” it said “Ring does not participate in camera registry programs managed by police departments, including programs that provide direct access to user devices, and we encourage agencies to utilize the Request for Assistance feature.”

But then Huseman revealed that under its policies, Ring apparently “reserves the right to respond immediately to urgent law enforcement requests for information in cases involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”

The company also requires police to fill out a special “emergency request form” if there is an urgent need to bypass the normal law enforcement process, according to the letter.

“So far this year, Ring has provided videos to law enforcement in response to an emergency request only 11 times,” Huseman stated. “In each instance, Ring made a good-faith determination that there was an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to a person requiring disclosure of information without delay.”

Not inevitable

Democrat US Senator Ed Markey expressed his concern at Amazon’s response to his questions.

“As my ongoing investigation into Amazon illustrates, it has become increasingly difficult for the public to move, assemble, and converse in public without being tracked and recorded,” Markey was quoted by CNN as saying in a statement.

“We cannot accept this as inevitable in our country,” Markey reportedly said. “Increasing law enforcement reliance on private surveillance creates a crisis of accountability, and I am particularly concerned that biometric surveillance could become central to the growing web of surveillance systems that Amazon and other powerful tech companies are responsible for.”

Amazon’s Ring of course has a different take on the matter.

A Ring spokesperson told CNN the law “authorises companies like Ring to provide information to government entities if the company believes that an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person, such as a kidnapping or an attempted murder, requires disclosure without delay. Ring faithfully applies that legal standard.”

“It’s simply untrue that Ring gives anyone unfettered access to customer data or video, as we have repeatedly made clear to our customers and others,” the spokesperson added.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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