By Taylor Ferrara
With the increase of technological devices, there will always be a risk that companies are collecting and accessing our private information. We’ve heard such stories involving cellphone companies, Facebook, Google and now Amazon. On October 7th, a technology-focused nonprofit group called the Fight For the Future published an open joint letter to elected officials and lawmakers addressing a raising concern about the police’s partnership with Amazon’s Ring and how it is impacting an individual’s privacy. As of right now, there are more than 500 police partnerships across the United States that are contracted with Ring. The partnership allows police officers to directly contact Ring owners and request the user’s doorbell videos to investigate nearby crimes. Furthermore, the contract between the two parties will sometimes allow discounted or even free Ring products which the police can distribute to residents in their communities.
For those who do not know, Ring is a video doorbell that allows the user to record who is at their door. The footage is accessible to employees at Amazon and the user. The user then can share this footage on a special police portal that will send a crime alert to a social network app called Neighbors. The Neighbor’s App allows users to view and comment on posted doorbell videos.
The open joint letter was signed by more than 30 other civil rights groups, such as “Center for Human Rights and Privacy, Color of Change and the Constitutional Alliance”. Not only did the letter ask mayors and city councils to cancel their existing partnership with Ring, but the letter also asked to prevent police departments from making future deals with Ring and requested members of Congress to look into Ring’s practices. The civil rights groups emphasized a number of growing concerns including the “possibility that video footage could be misused” and that Ring has the capability to “incorporate facial recognition technology with surveillance doorbells”. Ring has given police the ability to utilize a user’s posted footage anyway they wish too. This raises the concerns that video footage could be used for “facial recognition or provided to federal agencies like ICE”. Scott Roberts Sr., Color of Change’s criminal justice campaign director stated, “We know that technology is already flawed and when used improperly and without government oversight, it will be abused and can put people at risk for being misidentified and falsely matched for crimes”. Amazon has denied any responsibility for how the police may share and use the footage once it is obtained.
Police departments have discussed that using Ring has helped them solve crimes due to footage of car and package thieves and burglars. Although there has been a positive use in Ring’s services, it is causing more problems than fixing them. Reports have found that about two-thirds of reported crimes are not really crimes. A majority of the alerts sent to police were of people walking around or driving in neighborhoods. This growing network is giving a false sense of rising crimes in communities, even though crime rates have been declining nationwide.
Local lawmakers and elected officials have not taken action over these rising privacy concerns, except for Massachusetts’s Cambridge Police department. The Police department currently ceased their partnership negotiations due to the city’s surveillance oversight laws. Cambridge laws require local agencies, such as police departments, to get the City Council’s approval for any surveillance technology. In September 2019, Senator Ed. Markey, sent a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos with a list of questions regarding the Ring and the surveillance services from local police departments. As of right now, we are unaware if Jeff Bezos has addressed Senator Ed Markey’s questions.
Amazon states that Ring’s mission is to help create a safer neighborhood and that the company has taken care to design features that keep the users in control and protect their privacy. On paper that sounds believable, but to what extent do users have “control”? With all of these promotional Ring gifts, it seems that Amazon is attempting to cover up the fact that our data is being collected and is at the mercy of law enforcement. More local governments should enact surveillance oversight laws, as Cambridge did, in order to protect the people from law enforcement that may abuse this intrusive power.
Student Bio: Taylor Ferrara is a third-year student and a Blog Editor for the Journal of High Technology Law. She has a B.S. in Management Information Systems from State University of New York at Plattsburgh.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.