Amazon’s Ring Will Ask Police to Publicly Request User Videos

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Amazon.com Inc.’s Ring, long criticized for a cozy relationship with law enforcement, will start requiring the police to publicly request home security footage captured by the company’s doorbells and cameras.

Beginning next week, police departments that want Ring users to help with investigations will be required to make the requests in the company’s Neighbors app. Previously, police officers emailed users in a dedicated portal.

Ring, the leading maker of internet-connected doorbells, has put cameras on the front of millions of homes, selling residents peace of mind via smartphone. But for civil liberties groups, the cameras -- and their use by law enforcement agencies -- pose threats to Americans’ privacy and civil rights. Ring has shown no signs of abandoning its relationship with the police, but in recent years has grown more transparent, publicly identifying law enforcement partners and, as of next week, letting all Neighbors users see what information is being requested.

Ring founder Jamie Siminoff, who pitched his startup on ABC’s Shark Tank before Amazon scooped it up for $839 million in 2018, sees his company’s mission as making neighborhoods safer. As such, Ring has aggressively courted the police, who have been only too happy to add the cameras to their arsenal of crime-fighting tools. More than 2,000 agencies in the U.S. have signed onto a program that lets them request videos and share updates with Ring users.

Civil-liberties groups, however, cite a long history of law enforcement agencies abusing new technologies and have called on Amazon and Ring to sever their ties with police departments. About 35% of voters at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting last week voted for a resolution asking the company to commission a report on whether its surveillance gear spurs human rights violations.

“We believe transparency and accountability are crucial to safer, better communities,” Ring said on Thursday on its blog. “Since our founding, we have been committed to improving our products and services by listening to and incorporating feedback from all parts of our communities.”

The post said Ring has been working with independent third-party experts in the last year to find ways to give people more insight into how the police use Ring technology. A spokesperson declined to identify those experts.

Ring has played a major role in establishing Amazon as a leader in connected home technologies. Its expanding lineup of hardware extends to floodlights, window sensors and a still-in-development drone capable of zooming around the house when it hears something amiss.

At the same time, the unit has been the source of public relations headaches for Amazon, including the revelation that Ring had fired employees who sought to access customer data and hacks of weak customer passwords that let strangers commandeer Ring devices’ speakers. Ring turned on greater password protection by default last year and in January started to roll out end-to-end encryption of customer videos, an item long on the wishlist of privacy advocates.

Starting on Monday, law enforcement agencies seeking videos will be required to use a new “Request for Assistance” post on the Neighbors app, Ring’s Nextdoor-like portal for video sharing and safety-related community chatter. Users nearby who have potentially useful videos can click a link within the post and choose which videos to submit.

Police departments must specify a time frame of 12 hours or less for the videos they seek, and requests are limited to users within a geographic area of half a square mile. Public agencies won’t be able to alter or delete such requests, which will remain visible on their page within the app, Ring says.

Ring users, who can already opt out of receiving police video requests, will continue to have that ability after the change to “Request for Assistance” posts, the company says.

Legally binding demands for Ring user data are unaffected by the change, and the company remains subject to warrants and other court orders that it turn over customer data or footage from cameras.

Ring received almost 1,900 such requests in the U.S. in 2020, up from about 700 the prior year, according to the company. Ring, like its parent, says it objects to legal requests when they are overly broad or inappropriate. The company gave the authorities all or part of what they were seeking in 58% of U.S. law enforcement requests last year, according to the most recent data.

The volume of voluntary requests is significantly higher, covering more than 22,335 incidents in 2020, the Financial Times reported earlier this year.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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