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6 December 2019

Ring’s coziness with police bites Amazon – PR firms, get pitching

Amazon’s Ring subsidiary might have thought it was in the clear, having fended off the worst of the fallout from quietly letting police access the footage from its doorbell cameras without letting customers know about it. Having sworn that it didn’t let the police know where its customers actually lived, it turns out that it went as far as creating a map that would let police forces get pretty darn close.

The map was shut down in July, but this issue has been playing out over the past year. This map was ostensibly meant to show police forces a heatmap, to determine which neighborhoods had the highest concentrations of the doorbells, however, if you zoomed in far enough, you could identify individual houses. So then, if Ring was effectively lying about not sharing your address with the local constabulary, what else is it hiding or lying about?

This is the damage that has been done to the brand, perhaps more so in the US where police militarization is at an all-time high, and police brutality and murders have been hot-button issues for the past few years, and fears of government overreach haven’t diminished much since the Snowden-NSA revelations. Many communities are not on the best of terms with their local police force, and the idea that a tool existed that would allow gaps in coverage to be determined would be quite unsettling for some – especially combined with the ability to request data from cameras directly. If you don’t trust those in positions of power, those abilities get alarming very quickly.

Of course, personal politics determines one’s reaction to this sort of news. Ostensibly, the tool should have allowed police forces to better allocate resources, putting more patrols in areas that have less chance of capturing suspects on video. Similarly, the ability to request video from Ring should have enabled better arrest and prosecution outcomes, tapping into a crowd-sourced CCTV pool that might help police catch those in the community that would do it harm.

But the way that Ring has continuously bungled its relationship with police forces is baffling – dropping the ball on positioning its decision to work closely with police forces on multiple occasions. The fact that it has told police that these tools “should not be shared with the public” is almost unshakeable proof that it knew what it was doing would not be popular among customers. And yet, since the first was announced in March 2018, the company went on to sign up 335 police forces globally by the time it shut down the heat map tool – and has some 600+ police partnerships in total, mostly in the US, but also some in the UK.

CNET went digging and found that Ring places no limits on how police forces can use the technologies, including the Neighborhood Portal that let neighbors share clips captured by their doorbells – ranging from suspicious looking characters to more lighthearted incidents involving pets.

However, unbeknownst to these neighbors, if the local police force was a Ring partner, it had access to all this footage, as well as the specific footage request portal – and it is still not clear whether police were passed all the data Ring has on its customers, if they chose to share their video footage with the force. In theory, the police would request specific times and dates, and if it was a multiple hour range, it was up to the customer to edit the video if they didn’t want their own comings and goings on record. It’s also really not too far a conspiratorial leap to assume that Ring has or had plans to automate this request process, for the sake of ‘convenience.’

Since those revelations, Ring has been less hushed about the tools, appearing to think it better to ask forgiveness than permission. It says it is now attaching strings to how the police are able to use its platform, but that won’t detract from the bad-look of having police forces give away free Ring doorbells in communities, which would give them private CCTV networks.

Politicians are now latching onto the topic. Senator Markey, a Democrat for Massachusetts, told the outlet that “the more we learn about Ring, the clearer it becomes that this product poses serious privacy and civil liberty threats. Information as sensitive as the street you live on should be kept private and secure. There are gaping holes in Ring’s privacy policies and the rules governing its partnerships with law enforcement, which Amazon should address immediately.”

Similarly, the ACLU has piled in. “This revelation demonstrates why Ring’s statements about protecting user privacy should not be trusted,” said Mohammad Tajsar, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “For months, Ring claimed that its products do not allow police departments to find out who in their neighborhoods own cameras.”

So, are you comfortable with a for-profit company using smart home devices as a way to create a privately-run surveillance network for the government? Do you trust all involved to act appropriately? Do you think there’s sufficient oversight in that process? How much do you trust Amazon?

People were laughed at for the fuss they made about boycotting Facebook’s Portal devices, swearing that they would never give Zuckerberg a direct line into their own homes. Of course, many of those declarations were likely made on Facebook itself, perhaps Instagram or WhatsApp too. Google too has attracted immense scrutiny in the smart home, on the supposition that it would be using all the data it gathered from the smart home to enrich its advertising businesses.

This meant, to some degree, that Amazon, the company that sells you things you don’t want to go to the store for, had the best chance of creating a surveillance-capitalism-free smart home. We know that retailers use loyalty cards to track our purchases, and Google and Facebook to market to us, and we are generally not at all concerned that our supermarket or home improvement store might have a very good idea of our personal lives – because their involvement stops once we’ve paid for their goods.

And then Amazon goes and balls it all up, or rather, the smart home startup that it paid $839mn for back in February 2018 seems to have been far too tightlipped about how it was going to market. Amazon might want to take some time to distance itself from Ring, and while writing the whole endeavor off would be quite costly, it would be a suitably bold position.