The Los Angeles Police Department has asked locals to turn over footage their Amazon Ring doorbell cameras may have picked up of Black Lives Matter protests, according to a new report by the Intercept.
On Tuesday, digital rights nonprofit the Electronic Frontier Foundation released the results of a U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request which it had sent to the LAPD. The EFF obtained emails showing that a detective with the LAPD — which has a partnership with Ring’s Neighbours community app — asked for owners of the doorbell cams to submit footage to the “Safe L.A. Task Force” picturing “recent protests.” The timeline of the requests match up with nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, which drew countless thousands over the course of weeks in Los Angeles.
The LAPD released documents under FOIA, but emails focusing on Ring footage were redacted to remove information specifying what time period the requested footage should cover, or what, exactly, the cops were looking for. One email from Detective Gerry Chamberlain on July 16, 2020 referenced reports of injuries and looting, suggesting any footage Ring owners sent in would be helpful to the task force’s investigation of “significant crimes committed during the protests and demonstrations.” Other such emails went out, but the versions released to the EFF by the LAPD were so heavily redacted it wasn’t possible to identify what they were in reference to.
It’s unclear how many Ring owners the email may have been sent to. But according to the Intercept, other emails in the batch show that Ring staff were helping LAPD officers use tools designed to identify doorbell cams within a given geographic area and send bulk requests for recordings to their owners. It’s similarly unclear how many Ring owners may have complied with the requests.
According to the EFF, this is the first evidence that police forces used Ring’s increasingly ubiquitous network of smart cameras to monitor Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, with few constraints on what footage could be collected or how it could be used. While users are free to deny the requests, no warrant is required to send them out. Ring owners may feel pressured to comply with a message sent by the police, and a Vice report in 2019 showed that Amazon was instructing police in the art of persuading residents to hand over data. Recorded Ring footage lives on in the cloud, meaning in some instances Amazon can simply turn it over themselves if an owner doesn’t respond or denies a request.
Protests against police brutality and racism in Los Angeles were overwhelmingly peaceful, by the LAPD’s own admission. Field reports from LAPD commanders obtained by the L.A. Times in October 2020 showed that only 6-7% of protests involved violence or property destruction, though even that tally includes events where police initiated use of force and doesn’t identify how many individuals actually broke the law. As the vast majority of people involved in the protests did nothing but legally exercise their first amendment rights, it’s reasonable to suspect any footage obtained by the LAPD would mostly depict legally protected activity.
“Demonstrators have a First Amendment-protected right to protest, but there is also a long history in this country, from long before the civil rights movement up through the present, of activists facing retribution and reprisals for their political participation,” EFF surveillance policy analyst Matthew Guariglia told the Intercept. “This can be especially troubling, and especially chilling to political expression, when people are protesting the same institutions doing the surveillance, namely the police.”
“Ring requests provide an unregulated avenue through which police could theoretically use a trash can being knocked over as justification for requesting footage of 12 hours of peaceful protesting,” Guariglia added. “Once you hand over footage to police for investigating a package theft or car break-in, they can hold onto it or forward it to other agencies without your knowledge or permission.”
Amazon has partnered with thousands of police and fire departments across the country for a program that allows them to request footage from owners to assist with investigations. As of the end of January 2021, that partnership program is active, to varying degrees, in every U.S. state except Wyoming and Montana, essentially amounting to a massive private surveillance network accessible to participating agencies. For example, Ring’s network of cameras in Washington, DC, was so extensive by the end of 2019 that Gizmodo found even short walks throughout the city would result in pedestrians being filmed from numerous vantage points.
Reporting by the Washington Post has shown Ring — as well as Google-owned competitor Nest’s doorbell cams — have helped normalize unprecedented levels of residential surveillance, and may encourage owners to treat everyday neighbourhood activity with an increased level of paranoia. Other reporting has shown that users on the Neighbourhood app, which is used by Ring owners to discuss goings-on in their areas, often seem pretty racist and disproportionately report innocuous behaviour by people of colour as suspicious.
The company isn’t content with just installing more cameras on homes: Amazon recently announced plans to equip its entire fleet of delivery vehicles with surveillance cameras to monitor employees on their routes and assist in investigations, potentially including police matters like package theft.