Amazon’s Ring Sets Off More Privacy Alarms

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Amazon’s home surveillance company, Ring, is making headlines once again after documents sent to Illinois police telling officers what “should not be shared with the public” were leaked, CNET reports.

Ring began partnering with dozens of police departments across the country at the start of 2019. But the details of the home-security company’s relationships with law enforcement are still murky.

For instance, Ring continues to decline requests to provide the total number of police partnerships. This leaves privacy advocates left to figure out those numbers by filing public data requests through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

At the end of April, Gizmodo estimated that it was “over 225 law enforcement agencies.” Privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur has just “released a map showing every Ring police partnership he could find, totaling 250 as of Aug. 19,” according to CNET.

CNET also reports that the police in Hampton, Va., who partnered with Ring earlier in the year “received 15 free cameras, plus one free camera for every 20 people who signed up.”

This, again, raised concerns about the blurring lines between the police protecting and serving, or becoming “a de facto extension of Ring’s corporate PR.”

This simple number detailing the amount of law enforcement agencies partnered with Ring isn’t the only piece of information being shielded from the public eye.

The Bensenville, Il., Police Department, in email exchanges with Ring, was told not to share with the public “back-end features” such as the desktop law enforcement portal, the camera coverage heat map, sample video requests, or the video request process itself, according to information was obtained by Privacy Researcher Gandlur, the FOIA documents reveal.

The Ring associate followed this up by adding that this information could be sensitive to investigations.

Moreover, if a crime occurs within the vicinity of someone’s home where a Ring camera is installed, the police department will often ask the homeowner for the footage their camera collected.

A Ring spokesperson gave The Crime Report the following statement:

Law enforcement can only submit requests for video footage to users in a given area when investigating an active case. Ring facilitates these requests and user consent is required in order for any footage or information to be shared with law enforcement.

However, even when police don’t receive footage from the requests through the Neighbors app, the police can “reportedly obtain [the footage] from Amazon itself through subpoenas” within a short time period, according to GovTech.

In response to this, the same spokesperson told The Crime Report:

The reports that police can obtain any video from a Ring doorbell within 60 days is false. Ring will not release customer information in response to government demands without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Ring objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.

When it comes to the law enforcement portal, only police departments that have partnered with Ring have access to viewing the videos uploaded by the residents. Investigators can also request footage from residents directly on the Neighbors app.

CNET reports that The Intercept published screenshots of the portal from a promotional Ring video in February, shortly after the clip was taken offline. The screenshots proved privacy advocates’ worst fears: that police could see who had a camera installed, as well as see alerts and comments posted by both citizens and police.

When it comes to actually requesting footage from individuals, Ring has been coaching police departments on what to say and how to approach them. This same technique was evident at the beginning of August, when Ring began scripting the police department’s statements about their cameras.

In footage requests completed through the Law Enforcement portal, Ring suggested the department’s request “specific times and dates” from individuals, and then ask them to send “any relevant footage to the police’s email address and phone number.”

However, in an actual video request sent on July 11 from the Bensenville police, the department was looking into a car theft that requested footage from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. from the day prior.

Documents showed that every moment from that 10-hour span was reviewed, CNET reports.

Video requests from the Bensenville police conclude with this statement, “By choosing to share your Ring videos, the Bensenville Police Department will receive all of your video recordings in the requested time frame, along with your email address and physical address.”

CNET also spoke to families in neighborhoods where police departments are partnered with Ring. They found that police have “shown up at known ring users’ doorsteps to request footage in person if the online requests don’t pan out.”

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.

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