Amazon has acknowledged that it does not always ask for the consent of the owner when sharing Ring smart doorbell videos with law enforcement agencies. The tech giant made the confession in a letter to Senator Edward Markey, a prominent privacy advocate who asked the company for more clarification about its data collection and sharing policies.
In the letter, Amazon confirmed that it has shared footage from Ring doorbells with the police (and without consent) on 11 occasions in 2022. It did not offer any details about those 11 incidents, but did claim that each one was an emergency situation that required a timely response. In doing so, Amazon essentially admitted that there are situations that override user privacy, stating that it will share data with the police if it believes there is “danger of death or serious physical injury to any person, such as a kidnapping or an attempted murder.”
While that sounds like a reasonable security policy, it likely underplays the sheer invasiveness of Amazon’s network. What goes unstated in the company’s admission is that Amazon needs a way to process vast amounts of video footage in order to make any kind of judgement call. That means that there is a good chance that Amazon is applying analytic tech to Ring footage at an unprecedented scale, and the public has virtually no information about how Amazon is making those decisions. It also raises significant concerns about bias if the company is using automated tech when it draws the police to a particular location. For instance, Los Angeles police tried to use Ring footage to monitor a Black Lives Matter protest in 2021.
As it stands, Amazon has stated that the police do not have access to Ring videos that have not been shared, though it invites Ring owners to share footage from their devices voluntarily through the Neighbors app. The company will also share footage without the user’s consent when the police have a subpoena or a warrant, though it claims that it notifies the owner when such a request is made. 2,161 law enforcement agencies have signed up to gain access to Ring footage that is uploaded to Neighbors.
The Ring doorbells have audio capture capabilities, and can be configured to start recording whenever they detect movement. Senator Markey suggested that Amazon end-to-end encryption should be the default for Ring devices, though Amazon rejected that argument, stating that it would disable certain features. The company used similar logic to counter the notion that audio recording should be disabled by default. Ring, meanwhile, stressed that footage is only shared in emergency situations, in a manner that is compliant with the law.
“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,” said a Ring spokesperson. “The law authorizes 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.”
For critics, Amazon’s stance is still a privacy nightmare, insofar as it has created a massive and unregulated police surveillance operation in residential areas. Amazon has stated that it will no longer sell facial recognition to the police, though the far-reaching nature of the Ring network undercuts that stance since the police do not even need to use their own technology to gain access to surveillance (and possibly biometric) footage.
[UPDATE 07/19/22: This article has been updated to include a statement from Ring.]
July 15, 2022 – by Eric Weiss