Amazon Ring-police links attacked over facial recognition

Microsoft is calling for regulation on facial recognition technology (Image Denniro / iStockPhoto)
Civil rights groups called for a stop to police partnerships with Amazon Ring over concerns that potential use of facial recognition software could discriminate. (iStockPhoto)

More than 30 civil rights and religious groups have signed an open letter calling for elected officials to put an end to partnerships between Amazon and police in 500 communities over the potential use of facial recognition with Amazon Ring doorbell surveillance.

The letter, distributed Tuesday by a group called Fight for the Future, calls on government officials to investigate Amazon Ring’s business practices. It also calls for ending Amazon-police partnerships, which are tracked in 500 communities in the Neighbors Law Enforcement app. It adds that facial recognition software has been shown to disproportionately misidentify people of color and other groups and could lead to racial profiling.

“These partnerships pose a serious threat to civil rights and liberties, especially for black and brown communities already targeted and surveilled by law enforcement,” the letter reads.

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The letter further ignites concerns over police use of facial recognition, which San Francisco and Oakland, California, have banned.

RELATED: California seeking to ban use of facial recognition

The letter says Amazon is not held accountable for how it works with police departments to distribute Ring cameras to private homeowners. “In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition search, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI.”

The letter doesn’t purport that police have used facial recognition with Ring, and Ring has earlier denied any connection between the Ring technology and facial recognition software. Amazon could not be reached by FierceElectronics to comment on the open letter. (**See UPDATE below with Amazon's comments)

However, the letter notes that two patents were filed by Ring in November 2018 for technology to identify “suspicious people” and to create a “database of suspicious persons.” The patent filings were first reported by CNN.

The letter also notes that Ring’s terms of service allow the company to access a user’s recordings for the purpose of developing new products and services, which the letter purports will cover facial recognition.

Last December, The Information reported that a Ukraine-based research team for Ring had accessed customer surveillance footage to train image recognition software, which the letter points out.

The letter argues that “no surveillance partnerships with Amazon Ring should have been established or should be established in the future without substantial community engagement and input and elected official approval.”

RELATED: Video surveillance is big in China and getting bigger

Among the groups signing the letter are the Council on American-Islamic Relations, United We Dream, Color of Change, the United Church of Christ and Media Justice.  

“Amazon has created the perfect end run around our democratic process by entering into for-profit surveillance partnerships with local police departments,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, in a statement. “Police departments have easy access to surveillance networks without oversight or accountability.”

Alex Matthews, national chair of Restore the Fourth, said the partnerships between Ring and police are “about the paranoid and mostly white notion that owners of homes and businesses aren’t safe unless the police are proactively watching every square inch of public space…We need to free ourselves from the notion that more police eyes means more safety.”

**UPDATE 10/8/2019 Ring responded to the contents of the open letter after initial publication of this story. Ring said the letter is "categorically false" in claiming Ring and Amazon employees have access to live camera feeds of Ring devices. Ring has systems that restrict and audit access to information and policies in place for employees and has never provided employees with access to livestreams, Ring said.

As to the letter's claim that Ring partnerships with police pose "a serious threat to civil rights and liberties," Ring responded that its central mission is to make neighborhoods safer, partly with the Neighbors app where communities can build relationships with local law enforcement. Users are left in control of the app to protect their privacy and there is a community guidelines section that includes Ring's "policies against racial profiling and prohibiting hate speech and other forms of prejudice."

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