Cryptography Amazon's helping police build a surveillance network with Ring doorbells

Published on June 5th, 2019 📆 | 6123 Views ⚑

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Amazon’s helping police build a surveillance network with Ring doorbells

If you're walking in Bloomfield, New Jersey, there's a good chance you're being recorded. But it's not a corporate office or warehouse security camera capturing the footage -- it's likely a Ring doorbell made by Amazon. 

While residential neighborhoods aren't usually lined with security cameras, the smart doorbell's popularity has essentially created private surveillance networks powered by Amazon and promoted by police departments.

Police departments across the country, from major cities like Houston to towns with fewer than 30,000 people, have offered free or discounted Ring doorbells to citizens, sometimes using taxpayer funds to pay for Amazon's products. While Ring owners are supposed to have a choice on providing police footage, in some giveaways, police require recipients to turn over footage when requested.

Ring said it would start cracking down on those strings attached.

"Ring customers are in control of their videos, when they decide to share them and whether or not they want to purchase a recording plan. Ring has donated devices to Neighbor's Law Enforcement partners for them to provide to members of their communities," Ring said in a statement. "Ring does not support programs that require recipients to subscribe to a recording plan or that footage from Ring devices be shared as a condition for receiving a donated device. We are actively working with partners to ensure this is reflected in their programs."

While more surveillance footage in neighborhoods could help police investigate crimes, the sheer number of cameras run by Amazon's Ring business raises questions about privacy involving both law enforcement and tech giants. You might recognize Amazon as a place to get cheap deals with one-day shipping, but critics have pointed out the retail giant's ventures with law enforcement, like offering facial recognition tools.

But those cameras benefit several groups: Police can gather more video footage, while Amazon can charge new Ring owners up to $3 a month for subscription fees on the smart doorbells. Residents, meanwhile, get some peace of mind, particularly with the Neighbors app, essentially a social network sharing camera feeds.

"Our township is now entirely covered by cameras," said Captain Vincent Kerney, detective bureau commander of the Bloomfield Police Department. "Every area of town we have, there are some Ring cameras."

Bloomfield's police department did not receive any free cameras from Ring, but the camera was already popular in the town of roughly 50,000 people.

More than 50 local police departments across the US have partnered with Ring over the last two years, lauding how the Amazon-owned product allows them to access security footage in areas that typically don't have cameras -- on suburban doorsteps.

But privacy advocates argue this partnership gives law enforcement an unprecedented amount of surveillance.

"What we have here is a perfect marriage between law enforcement and one of the world's biggest companies creating conditions for a society that few people would want to be a part of," said Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California.

Ring also referred to this blog post on how it handles privacy concerns with police partnerships.

"Our customers and Neighbors app users place their trust in us to help protect their homes and communities and we take that responsibility incredibly seriously," the company said.

How Neighbors works

Amazon bought Ring in 2018 for a reported $1 billion, and the maker of smart doorbells and security cameras helped expand the retail giant's smart homes push.

That happened amid a surging consumer interest in newly internet-connected devices, from lightbulbs and TVs to security cameras. Outside of Amazon, companies like Nest, which Google bought for $3.2 billion in 2014, also offer security cameras for homes. Strategy Analytics expected more than 3.4 million video doorbells would be sold in 2018.

Ring had been courting local police departments even before Amazon acquired it. Police are mostly interested in Ring's Neighbors app, a free download that serves as a place where people can share, view and comment on crime information in their neighborhood, as well as upload video clips from Ring doorbells. Then police court the public to buy Ring.

"We're encouraging residents of Mountain Brook to purchase that type of technology and work with the app," said Ted Cook, the police chief in Mountain Brook, Alabama. "We see it as trying to create a digital neighborhood watch."

When police partner with Ring, they have access to a law enforcement dashboard, where they can geofence areas and request footage filmed at specific times. Law enforcement can only get footage from the app if residents choose to send it. Otherwise, police need to subpoena Ring.

Police said the app has helped them solve crimes since residents usually send in footage of thieves on their steps stealing packages, or a suspicious car driving through the neighborhood.

neighbors-app-composite

The Neighbors app allows people to post videos and crime alerts. Police can request Ring footage through this app.


Amazon/Ring

Those residents can feel more secure becaue the program offers a direct line to police.

"Someone who is investing in this Ring is obviously concerned about their safety and their property," said Eric Piza, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It seems like a fair trade-off. They are probably perfectly fine with police being able to look at the street view outside their house."

Despite its benefits, the relationship between police departments and Ring raises concerns about surveillance and privacy, as Amazon is working with law enforcement to blanket communities with cameras.

Ring has had its own privacy concerns. The Information reported last December that workers in Ukraine watched videos on its public app without customers knowing. In a statement to TechCrunch following the report, the company said, "we take the privacy and security of our customers' personal information extremely seriously."

"Essentially, we're creating a culture where everybody is the nosy neighbor looking out the window with their binoculars," said Dave Maas, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "It is creating this giant pool of data that allows the government to analyze our every move, whether or not a crime is being committed."

Put a Ring on it

On a heat map of Bloomfield, there are hardly any spots in the New Jersey township out of sight of a Ring camera.

The smart doorbells were already popular within the community, Kerney said, and it made sense to partner with Ring for the law enforcement dashboard. Now, on top of those cameras being on seemingly every block, police could request footage from residents just from a tap on a phone.

bloomfield-heatmap

A heat map of Bloomfield showing that Ring cameras are everywhere in the New Jersey town. The closer it is to red, the more cameras there are.


Bloomfield Police

It's a massive jump from how much surveillance footage the Bloomfield police department had access to before Ring came into town.

Kerney said he had started a volunteer surveillance registration in 2017. Any place that had security cameras could sign up and provide footage to police.

There were about 442 places that registered, Kerney recalled. It was mostly businesses, since many private homes didn't have security cameras then. But it's a drop in the bucket compared with the network Ring has.

"There's probably 10 times as many Ring cameras as we have anything else," he said.

Part of the massive adoption is due to how popular products like Ring and Google's Nest have made surveillance systems. They're not just for businesses anymore: The market for smart home security cameras is expected to surpass $9.7 billion by 2023.

"Generally, most people don't have big-time surveillance systems in their home," Kerney said. "But something simple like Ring, where you just plug it in? People will go for that."

Police departments are piggybacking on Ring's network to build out their surveillance networks.

In Hampton, Virginia, police received 15 free Ring cameras after partnering with the company in March. The police department is still figuring out what neighborhoods they're going to distribute those cameras to.

Part of that includes working with the crime analysis unit to determine which blocks could use these cameras the most, said Ashley Jenrette, a Hampton police public information officer.

Paying the price

Ring helps police avoid roadblocks for surveillance technology, whether a lack of funding or the public's concerns about privacy.

"If the police department had to go and create a plan of where it was going to put all the cameras in the neighborhood, how much it was going to cost, and take it to the city council, maybe there would be some debate," the EFF's Maas said. "There's a reason we push for ordinances that require police department seek city council approval before they acquire any surveillance technology."

Multiple cities have laws requiring a public process to debate how police use and buy surveillance technology. Community activists fight back against tools like facial recognition and automated license plate readers.

But when police and Amazon convince private residents to buy these cameras, it's essentially circumventing that process while saving the city money. Ring cameras can cost between $99 and $500.

"We don't have security cameras citywide," Cook said. "Essentially, this has the ability of creating security camera technology citywide. We're asking citizens to participate, to purchase it on their own."

Some police departments do more than just ask. Police in Indiana, New Jersey, California and other states have offered discounts for Ring cameras, sometimes up to $125. In some cases, those discounts come from taxpayer money.

"Part of the problem is that the public is financially subsidizing invasions of their own privacy in their communities when they do this," Tajsar said.

In April, the city of Hammond, Indiana, announced it had $37,500 in funds to subsidize Ring devices -- half of which came from Ring. The other $18,750 came from the city, said Steve Kellogg, Hammond police's public information officer.

The city had 500 cameras, and in about a week, they were all sold. The city government ran more discounted programs, Kellogg said, putting out more than 600 Ring cameras in the city.

"There will be more cameras on the streets," Kellogg said. "It's really a no-brainer."

Other cities will do giveaways, either in raffles or as rewards for crime tips, as the Southern California city of El Monte did.

ring-video-doorbell-two-4

Police across the country have been giving away Ring doorbells or subsidizing them at a heavy discount.


Chris Monroe/CNET

While police need to ask for permission to get footage, a giveaway in Houston ensured that law enforcement would get any videos it needed. In its giveaway post last March, Houston police wrote in its requirements that winners would agree to give Houston police access to the cameras when it's requested.

"This model is the most disturbing because they're basically commandeering people's homes as surveillance outposts for law enforcement," Tajsar said.

Houston police didn't respond to requests for comment. Ring said that it doesn't support this model and that it was reaching out to police partners to make sure this wasn't a requirement for Ring giveaways. 

It's unlikely that police departments will run out of cameras. In several cities, for every 20 people who sign up for the app, Ring donates one camera. It's why some police departments have been pushing for more residents to sign up.

Police promoting the cameras also helps Amazon's profits. Even when Ring is giving the cameras away for free or providing subsidies, it quickly finds a return on its investment.

You don't have to have a Ring subscription, but it's the only way you can store footage recorded from the camera. The cheapest plan starts at $3 a month. Even when Amazon donated $18,750 to Hammond's subsidy program, it could make all of that back in less than a year with 600 new subscriptions.

"As policing becomes more technology-driven, we have this new issue of police acting in the interest of commercial enterprises," Piza said.

Combining tech

Even though Bloomfield is peppered with Ring cameras, people haven't been flooding police with footage from their doorbells, Kerney said.

He's sent about 10 requests in the last two weeks, tied to thefts, burglaries and stolen cars, but most of them have gone unanswered, the detective bureau commander said.

When people in the Neighbors app aren't being responsive, police will take to the streets and start knocking on doors asking for footage in person. People are a lot more cooperative when an officer is at their doorsteps asking for Ring footage, he said. Civil advocates argue that people don't really have a choice.

"You change how you drive when you see a cop driving next to you. What if a cop shows up at your door and asks you for something?" Tajsar said. "Even if you're the biggest civil libertarian, you will feel compelled to turn that footage over."

And Ring isn't limited to Amazon's own technology, more tech-savvy police departments have found.

While Ring faced backlash last December when it was considering facial recognition for the doorbell cameras, police are capable of using the footage provided by residents with their own algorithms.

Depending on how the Ring camera is set up, it can capture motion on the streets, like cars passing by. Kellogg noted that Hammond uses automated license plate readers and could use footage from Ring cameras to track down vehicles.

Police can enter details on a car captured in Ring footage, search in the license plate reader system, and figure out the car's owner and address, he added.

"That's something that's unheard of," Kellogg said.  "With Ring now picking up any motion in vehicles, maybe we won't catch someone ringing the doorbell, but if it drives by, Ring turns on and captures that vehicle."

Residents may not be aware of that when they turn the footage over. The requests for Ring videos often come in the Neighbors app just asking for evidence related to reported incidents, with no details on what the clips will be used for.

"If the public are going to share this footage with the police, they need to know what it's going to be used for," Maas said.

Originally published at 5:00 a.m. PT.
Updated at 7:55 a.m. PT: To add more statements from Ring. 

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