Noah Cozad, MJLST Staffer
Amazon’s Ring company posted a series of Instagram posts around Halloween, including a video of children trick or treating, and statistics about how many doorbells were rang on the night. What was probably conceived as a cute marketing idea, quickly received backlash. It turns out people were not enamored by the thought of Ring watching their children trick or treat. This is not the first time Ring’s ads have drawn criticism. In June of this year, social media users noticed that Ring was using images and footage from their cameras in advertisements. The posts included pictures of suspects, as well as details of their alleged crimes. Ring called these “Community Alerts.” Customers, it seems, have agreed to exactly this use of data. In Ring’s terms of service agreement, customers grant Ring the ability to “use, distribute, store . . . and create derivative works from such Content that you share through our Service.”
The backlash to Ring’s ads gets to a deeper concern about the Amazon company and its technology: the creation of a massive, privately owned surveillance network. Consumers have good reason to be wary of this. It’s not fully understood what exactly Ring does with the images and videos this network creates. Earlier this year, it was reported that Ring allegedly gave their Ukrainian R&D team unlimited access to every video and image created by any Ring camera. And Ring allegedly allowed engineers and executives unlimited access to some customers cameras as well, including Ring’s security cameras made for indoor use. Ring has denied these allegations. There are not many specifics, but the company is said to have “minimum security standards” in general, and appears not to encrypt the storage of customer data. Though data is now encrypted “in transit.”
The legal and civil rights concerns from this technology all seem to come to a head with Ring’s partnerships with local police departments. Six hundred plus police departments, including the Plymouth and Rochester departments, have partnered with Ring. Police departments encourage members of their community to buy Ring, and Ring gives police forces potential access to camera footage. The footage is accessed through a request to the customer, which can be denied, otherwise, police usually require a warrant to force Ring to hand over the footage. California departments though allege they have been able to sidestep the customer, and simply threaten Ring with a subpoena for the footage. If true, there is effectively little stopping Ring from sharing footage with police. Ring has claimed to be working hard to protect consumers privacy but has not answered exactly how often they give police footage without the approval of the customer or a warrant.
How legislatures and regulators handle this massive surveillance network and its partnerships with law enforcement is up in the air at this point. Despite continual backlash to their services, and 30 civil rights groups speaking out against Ring’s corporate practices, there has been little movement on the Federal level it seems, besides a letter from Senator Markey (D-Mass) to Amazon demanding more information on their services. Recently, Amazon replied to Senator Markey, which shed some light on how police can receive and use the data. Amazon stated that police can request 12 hours of footage from any device within a 0.5 mile radius of the crime. Amazon further stated that it does not require police to meet any evidentiary standard before asking for footage.
Despite the relative lack of governmental action currently, it is almost assured some level of government will act on these issues in the near future. For now, though, Ring continues to expand its network, and along with it, concerns over due process, privacy, and law enforcement overreach.