Amazon’s home security company Ring tracked how its users responded to law enforcement requests for surveillance footage captured by Ring devices, and it provided overviews of that data to U.S. police departments upon request.
In emails obtained by Gizmodo, Ring informed a Florida police department about the number of times residents had refused police access to their cameras or ignored their requests altogether.
“When Neighbours first launched in the Ring app, initial video request data was analysed in addition to getting feedback from a few early partners,” a company spokesperson said. “This is not representative of our current policies or the current video request process. Ring does not provide video request data to law enforcement agencies.”
The request data acquired by Gizmodo, which covers a five-month period in 2018, showed that Ring customers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in the U.S. had largely ignored police requests for footage.
Between May and September of 2018, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department issued 22 requests via Ring’s law enforcement portal. Those requests resulted in 319 emails being sent to residents asking them to hand over footage, a statistic that the company now says it keeps confidential.
According to Ring, when police seek to acquire footage from its customers — who must also be users of Neighbours, its “neighbourhood watch” app — police are not informed of which residents receive the requests or how many cameras may have captured the footage they seek.
The requests are sent out in emails stating that Ring is assisting a particular officer with an investigation. They are received automatically by device owners within a certain range of an address provided by police.
Users are asked to “Share Your Ring Videos Now,” but are also given the option to review their footage first or decline. Ring’s messages make clear that sharing the footage is entirely voluntarily.
Fort Lauderdale entered into a partnership with Ring in March 2018 giving it access to this capability. One document obtained by Gizmodo claims the city had, as of that April, some 20,000 Ring owners, though it’s unclear how many had downloaded the Neighbours app at that time.
According to a September 2018 email, Fort Lauderdale police had roughly a 3.5 per cent success rate when requesting footage. Of the 319 total videos sought, they received permission to view only 11. The data was provided to the department after one officer asked to know how many times officers were successful in soliciting a response. “The Chief would like to know this ASAP,” he said.
“[W]e are working on adding more data points but this will give the Chief an idea of how your video requests are doing so far,” a Ring employee replied.
It is unclear from the data precisely how many individual users were involved. “We will have a better idea after we collect more data,” a Ring manager said in one email, asking rhetorically: “Did one person share 11 videos or did 11 people share one video each.”
Ring users seemed to naturally understand that the “do not share” button in the email they received is entirely superfluous. Of the 319 separate video requests, not a single one clicked the button. Instead, they simply ignored the emails. Nevertheless, Ring indicated in one email to police that the company was, in fact, keeping track of when its customers specifically chose not to share.
Ring has drawn intense scrutiny from some of the country’s leading digital rights activists, who are critical of the company’s vision of ubiquitous neighbourhood surveillance — or as Ring puts it: “Protection at every corner.”
In a recent CBS interview, Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff said the company’s goal is to “have every law enforcement agency on the police portal.”
Of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Ring has acquired contracts with more than 400, according to figures released by the company this week.
Recent reporting by Gizmodo revealed that Ring has forbidden police from using the term “surveillance” to describe its products, in at least one case, openly admitting the term could “flag user privacy concerns.” Ring says it looks at press release and “any messaging prior to distribution” to ensure its “products and services are accurately represented.”
Civil liberties advocates are particularly concerned, they say, because of Ring’s connection with Amazon, the trillion-dollar multinational, which purchased Ring in a $US1 ($1.4) billion deal last summer.
Amazon is a leading developer of law enforcement facial-recognition software, which independent studies have shown is deeply and intrinsically flawed, prone to error and gender and racial bias.
While Ring is vehement that it does not share its customers’ personal information with law enforcement without their consent, in some cases, it may still be possible for police to discern which Ring customers have refused to provide assistance. While police issuing requests for footage are not told which residents receive them, they are aware that requests go wide to any Neighbours users with cameras within a certain range of the address they provide.
In some cases, but not all, police are fully aware of which homes are equipped with Ring surveillance. If a user will provide footage, the police can try to obtain a warrant for the footage, provided they have probable cause to believe a crime has occurred. It remains unclear whether Ring customers are made aware of the warrants, even if they are not themselves targets of an investigation.
In Fort Lauderdale, police went to dozens of homes and helped residents install Ring cameras after holding raffles at neighbourhood watch meetings and handing them out for free. According to emails obtained by Gizmodo, the officers were specifically instructed by superiors to verify that the winners downloaded Ring’s Neighbours app so they could receive police requests. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department did not respond to requests for comment made Thursday.
Police in other cities acquire the names and addresses of Ring customers in other ways, regardless of Ring’s privacy policies. This may include those who acquired devices through taxpayer-funded discount programs, which Ring has established in numerous cities across the U.S. On Friday, the Guardian published a map Ring reportedly gave to a police department that appeared to show the locations of hundreds of Ring devices.
“People have a lot of good reasons why they wouldn’t want to share footage with police,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation focused on issues of surveillance and privacy.
As a chief example, Guariglia cited residents who have concerns about their immigration status. But he added that residents should always be able to refuse police access to their footage without fear of being branded as “uncooperative” or “vexsome” and without fear of being regarded with suspicion themselves.
“Even if Amazon gives police stats about a community and their acquiescence rate to providing police footage, even if they don’t have your individual information, I think that still has the ability to tar a community as being uncooperative with police. And that could have ramifications,” he said.
Gizmodo has seen circumstances in which police may have direct knowledge of where Ring customers reside. In South Gate, California — a town with fewer than 100,000 residents — police opted to purchase Ring cameras leftover from a subsidy program that wasn’t fully exhausted and handed them out free of charge to the city’s low-income residents. According to police emails with Ring, the subsidy program itself also required residents to provide proof of residency.
A South Gate police captain told Gizmodo that the department has never used Ring’s Neighbours app to solicit video from residents. “We wanted to get devices out there so people can feel safer,” he said. “It’s no different than what we’ve done for three decades, providing door locks, peepholes, and stuff like that.”
Added the captain: “I can’t think of any instance where any of these users have actually been a victim of a crime and brought back video to help us solve it.”
Motherboard reported this month that several U.S. cities have requested access to lists of customers who purchased cameras through the subsidy programs and that, according to notes from one city council meeting, Ring had offered to provide “a full breakdown of every resident and address that purchased a device.” Gizmodo has viewed emails showing similar requests made in other cities.
Armed with this information, it would not be difficult for police to deduce the identities of at least some Ring customers who’ve refused or ignored requests to share footage as part of ongoing criminal investigations, though they’d have no context to indicate why footage was withheld.
In some cases, residents may simply have failed to notice Ring’s email. That same information would provide police all that’s necessary to pursue a warrant, which is legally required in the U.S. to collect footage from users on an involuntary basis.
“There are a lot of blurry lines between voluntary cooperation and active solicitation,” said Chris Conley, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Citing the strict confidentiality arrangements around Ring’s policy contracts, Conley said that communities might be unaware of how Ring’s police partnerships work behind the scenes. “It’s not subject to any meaningful debate around when is it appropriate to use this,” he said.
“What kind of ongoing dialogue should there be? Is there any auditing to see if the rules are being complied with? Are there rules in the first place?”
“The fact that a company is pushing for contractual language that would prevent or deter that is deeply problematic,” he said.
Additional reporting by Mario Aguilar.