As reporters raced this summer to bring new details of Ring’s law enforcement contracts to light, the home security company, acquired last year by Amazon for a whopping $US1 ($1.5) billion, strove to underscore the privacy it had pledged to provide users.
Even as its creeping objective of ensuring an ever-expanding network of home security devices eventually become indispensable to daily police work, customers would always have a choice, it said, in “what information, if any, they share with law enforcement.” While it quietly toiled to minimise what police officials could reveal about Ring’s police partnerships to the public, it vigorously reinforced its obligation to the privacy of its customers—and to the users of its crime-alert app Neighbours.
However, a Gizmodo investigation, which began last month and ultimately revealed the potential locations of up to tens of thousands of Ring cameras, has cast new doubt on the effectiveness of the company’s privacy safeguards. It further offers one of the most “striking” and “disturbing” glimpses yet, privacy experts said, of Amazon’s privately run, omni-surveillance shroud that’s enveloping U.S. cities.
Gizmodo has acquired data over the past month connected to nearly 65,800 individual posts shared by users of the Neighbours app. The posts, which reach back 500 days from the point of collection, offer extraordinary insight into the proliferation of Ring video surveillance across American neighbourhoods and raise important questions about the privacy trade-offs of a consumer-driven network of surveillance cameras controlled by one of the world’s most powerful corporations.
And not just for those whose faces have been recorded.
Examining the network traffic of the Neighbours app produced unexpected data, including hidden geographic coordinates that are connected to each post—latitude and longitude with up to six decimal points of precision, accurate enough to pinpoint roughly a square inch of ground.
Neighbours is advertised as a way to receive “real-time crime and safety alerts” from local law enforcement and other Neighbours users nearby. A Ring camera isn’t required to use the app. In U.S. cities where police have partnered with Ring, police officers have access to a special law enforcement portal, through which the officers can request access to Ring footage. They can choose a date, a time, and a location on a map, and Neighbours users with cameras in the vicinity are alerted.
Ring says police aren’t told which specific camera owners receive the requests, ostensibly to ensure there are no repercussions for refusing to cooperate. The users’ exact locations are obfuscated, Ring says, unless they choose to impart that information to police.
Nevertheless, using the hidden coordinates, Gizmodo was able to produce detailed maps depicting the locations of tens of thousands of Ring cameras across 15 different U.S. cities with varying degrees of accuracy. Selected as a representative sample, the cities include Los Angeles, Houston, Seattle, Oakland, Boston, and Chicago, among others.
In reality, this represents only a tiny fraction of Ring’s network, and, importantly, the maps only show Ring camera owners who’ve opted to share footage using the Neighbours app. The cameras of Ring owners who haven’t shared footage using the app in the past 500 days are not displayed on the maps. Moreover, only a nine-square-mile area was examined by reporters in each city.
Gizmodo estimates having located up to 20,000 Ring cameras, though the total number of locations up for grabs remains a mystery; reporters ceased collecting the Neighbours data voluntarily after gathering data sufficient to exemplify the pervasiveness of Ring cameras, not because it Ring made it unavailable.
Dan Calacci, a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab, has been performing separate ongoing research to understand what makes a community “more likely to engage in self-surveillance” and has amassed a far bigger database of Ring camera locations. He shared a preview of his research with Gizmodo, including a map representing every Ring video posted to Neighbours since 2017.
“Specifically, I’ve been looking at trying to explain county-level use (like how many active cameras per 1000 people) using FBI crime reporting stats, gentrification metrics, and demographics,” Calacci said.
To identify which of the 65,800 posts Gizmodo collected potentially originated from a Ring doorbell camera, Gizmodo filtered for posts specifically categorised as being a “Ring” or a “Video Alert.”
Testing revealed that some coordinates were accurate enough to place a person directly in front of a Ring device; roughly four to six feet from home addresses volunteered by Neighbours users. Other coordinates fell just within eyeshot, pointing to the nearest intersection.
“Posts to the Neighbours app do not reveal the exact addresses of users or Ring devices owners,” a Ring spokesperson said. “When choosing to post to the app, users include the incident location, which is not always the same location as their address. These public posts are then displayed as happening at a nearby intersection close to the vicinity of the incident to protect user privacy.”
The farthest Gizmodo found a camera from a residence—based on tests involving only Neighbours posts in which camera owners had voluntarily specified their home address—was 260 feet. But as the coordinates are invariably accompanied by footage captured by a Ring camera, even locating the devices at this range proves trivial in person.
In Beacon, New York, a reporter drove to coordinates that accompanied a Neighbours post about thieves stealing packages. Although they didn’t pinpoint the user’s home precisely, it took only a matter of minutes to locate. A particular fence shown in the video wasn’t hard to spot. To wit, possessing both the footage and the coordinates all but ensures the location of anyone posting camera footage on Neighbours can be located with ease.
Ring did not refute that it was possible for anyone, armed with the data Gizmodo acquired, to pinpoint the exact locations of users’ homes. Instead, the company reiterated that, “Only content that a Neighbours user chooses to share on the Neighbours App is publicly accessible through the Neighbours App or by your local law enforcement.”
According to the company, Ring uses a combination of AES encryption and Transport Layer Security (TLS) to secure data between Ring devices and apps. However, the coordinates tied to each video post remain visible to any technical user. (Gizmodo has opted not to include a deeper explanation of how to access the coordinates out of respect for user privacy.)
“I think this is the most compelling look I’ve seen at the density of these cameras,” said Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Guariglia and other surveillance experts told Gizmodo that the ubiquity of the devices gives rise to fears that pedestrians are being recorded strolling in and out of “sensitive buildings,” including certain medical clinics, law offices, and foreign consulates. “I think this is my big concern,” he said, seeing the maps.
Accordingly, Gizmodo located cameras in unnerving proximity to such sensitive buildings, including a clinic offering abortion services and a legal office that handles immigration and refugee cases.
It is possible to acquire Neighbours posts from anywhere in the country, in near-real-time, and sort them in any number of ways. Nearly 4,000 posts, for example, reference children, teens, or young adults; two purportedly involve people having sex; eight mention Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and more than 3,600 mention dogs, cats, coyotes, turkeys and turtles.
While the race of individuals recorded is implicitly suggested in a variety of ways, Gizmodo found 519 explicit references to blackness and 319 to whiteness. A Ring spokesperson said the Neighbours content moderators strive to eliminate unessential references to skin colour. Moderators are told to remove posts, they said, in which the sole identifier of a subject is that they’re “black” or “white.”
Ring’s guidelines instruct users: “Personal attributes like race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, sex, gender, age, disability, socioeconomic and veteran status, should never be factors when posting about an unknown person. This also means not referring to a person you are describing solely by their race or calling attention to other personal attributes not relevant to the matter being reported.”
“There’s no question, if most people were followed around 24/7 by a police officer or a private investigator it would bother them and they would complain and seek a restraining order,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If the same is being done technologically, silently and invisibly, that’s basically the functional equivalent.”
Besides the hidden coordinates, everything in the Neighbours posts were ostensibly made public by the users on purpose. However, most users likely have an expectation that their posts are only being shared with others nearby.
Ring’s website states that supplying a home address enables Neighbours to “create a radius around your home” in order to share alerts from “within that radius.” (Users aren’t required to provide accurate information.) As such, users presumably expect that their own posts are, likewise, visible only to the neighbours in whose radii they fall. Ring’s website implies as much: “Conversely, if you share an alert on the [Neighbours app] about a crime or safety issue in your radius,” it says, “your neighbours will also get a notification on their phones and tablets.”
A Ring spokesperson said elsewhere the company characterises posts to Neighbours as “public” and allows users to link to specific posts on social media. Gizmodo found that Google has indexed almost 2,000 Ring videos so far. However, it’s unclear whether users understand that posts, including those containing accurate location information, can be easily viewed by anyone, from anywhere on the planet.
“Ring is always open to dialogue about ways we can iterate and improve upon our products, but it is also important to ensure that the Neighbours app and the way its features work are properly represented,” a Ring spokesperson said, adding it would continue to educate the public on how the app works, “and the positive impact its users are having on communities around the country.”
Gizmodo first contacted Ring for comment on Thursday, providing both zoomed-in and zoomed-out versions of maps, and later answered questions about the data posed by Ring’s product team. Reporters re-tested the process of collecting Neighbours coordinates on Monday and found the data remains accessible.
Companies like Ring have long argued—as Google did when it published millions of people’s faces on Street View in 2007—that pervasive street surveillance reveals, in essence, no more than what people have already made public; that there’s no difference between blanketing public spaces in internet-connected cameras and the human experience of walking or driving down the street.
But not everyone agrees.
“Persistence matters,” said Stanley, while acknowledging the ACLU’s long history of defending public photography. “I can go out and take a picture of you walking down the footpath on Main Street and publish it on the front of tomorrow’s newspaper,” he said. “That said, when you automate things, it makes it faster, cheaper, easier, and more widespread.”
Stanley and others devoted to studying the impacts of public surveillance envision a future in which Americans’ very perception of reality has become tainted by a kind of omnipresent Observer effect. Children will grow up, they say, equating the very act of being outside with being constantly recorded by strangers. This prolonged observed state has the potential to fundamentally alter the way people naturally behave. Or so it’s feared.
“It brings a pervasiveness and systematization that has significant potential effects on what it means to be a human being walking around your community,” Stanley said. “Effects we’ve never before experienced as a species, in all of our history.”
The Ring data has given Gizmodo the means to consider scenarios, no longer purely hypothetical, which exemplify what daily life is like under Amazon’s all-seeing eye. In the nation’s capital, for instance, walking the shortest route from one public charter school to a soccer field less than a mile away, 6-12 graders are recorded by no fewer than 13 Ring cameras.
Gizmodo found that dozens of users in the same Washington, DC, area have used Neighbours to share videos of children. Thirty-six such posts describe mostly run-of-the-mill mischief—kids with “no values” ripping up parking tape, riding on their “dort-bikes” [sic] and taking “selfies.”
Ring’s guidelines state that users are supposed to respect “the privacy of others,” and not upload footage of “individuals or activities where a reasonable person would expect privacy.” Users are left to interpret this directive themselves, though Ring’s content moderators are supposedly actively combing through the posts and users can flag “inappropriate” posts for review.
Ángel Díaz, an attorney at the Brennan Centre for Justice focusing on technology and policing, said the “sheer size and scope” of the data Ring amasses is what separates it from other forms of public photography.
“A photo of somebody as they pass by your house might not on its own tell you too much. But when you’re connecting an entire system that can, eventually, map people as they move around a neighbourhood, it gives you a pretty intimate sense of where they live, where they work, and where they go to school,” he said.
RAICES, a non-profit that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrant families and refugees, said on Thursday that it was removing the Ring devices from its offices in Texas. “Throw your Ring in the trash,” it told followers on Twitter. The nonprofit purchased the cameras last year after learning a man who shot 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue had, weeks earlier, taunted HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit that also assists refugees, online.
RAICES removed these cameras this week citing detailed reporting by Caroline Haskins—formerly of Motherboard—regarding Ring’s relationships with police.
A RAICES spokesperson said the lawyers who worked for the organisation could no longer trust that Ring wouldn’t help police to target its clients or their families, or aid Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in doing so. “They have no control over what police officers do with this information,” the spokesperson said, “no matter what they say.”
There’s a lingering fear of what happens should Amazon—whose foray into the commercial surveillance space conveniently plopped it at the top of poorly regulated industry with ill-defined legal boundaries—decide to get creative with Ring’s videos and user data.
“What would J. Edgar Hoover have done with that kind of capability?” asked Stanley, who said he knew there were an “awful lot” of Ring cameras out there. “But seeing it graphically on a map has an impact that numerical knowledge doesn’t bring you,” he said. “It illustrates in a vivid way the degree to which our public spaces have become saturated by video surveillance.”
Guariglia, who’s been researching police surveillance for a decade and holds a PhD in the subject, said he believes the hidden coordinates invalidate Ring’s claim that only users decide “what information, if any,” gets shared with police—whether they’ve yet to acquire it or not.
“I’ve never really bought that argument,” he said, adding that if they truly wanted, the police could “very easily figure out where all the Ring cameras are.”
The Guardian reported in August that Ring once shared maps with police depicting the locations of active Ring cameras. CNET reported last week, citing public documents, that police partnered with Ring had once been given access to “heat maps” that reflected the where cameras were generally concentrated.
The privacy researcher who originally obtained the heat maps, Shreyas Gandlur, discovered that if police zoomed in far enough, circles appeared around individual cameras. However, Ring denied that the maps, which it said displayed “approximate device density,” and instructed police not to share publicly, accurately portrayed the locations of customers.
Ring’s promises of confidentiality are otherwise irrelevant to many of the larger issues privacy experts attribute to its public-private business model, Díaz said, noting that the “idea of a ‘user’ varies.”
Ring has its police officer partners, whom it likely considers users of a different sort, and the device owners themselves, plus its Neighbours users, not all of whom own Ring devices. But the subjects whose images are recorded—those destined to become pieces of Neighbours content—aren’t users at all, he said. Not in that moment.
When someone who’s lost at 2 a.m. rings the wrong doorbell, they might be deemed “suspicious.” And in that moment, Ring’s promises about privacy don’t matter. Not even the ones it keeps.