Amazon Ring tells police to publicly request user videos amid privacy concerns

Cameras used for surveillance are exploding in commercial uses, some in the form of tiny sensors that can track crowds or individuals at workplaces or in public spaces—at times matched with facial recognition software.

With such a preponderance of devices, questions have persisted over personal privacy. One key example is Amazon’s Ring, which has shared with police user videos captured at residential doorsteps.

The practice has come under fire by civil liberties organizations concerned that police might target minority groups unfairly. More than 2,000 police and fire agencies in the U.S. have joined a program run by Ring that lets them request videos and share updates with Ring users, according to published reports.

On Thursday, Ring took another step to rein in its relationship with police by requiring police agencies to publicly request home security footage captured by Ring doorbell cameras.

Starting Monday, police departments that want Ring users to help with police investigations will be required to make the requests in the Ring Neighbors app. Currently, police officers email their requests to users through a dedicated portal.

Ring said police will use a new publicly viewable post category on Neighbors called Request for Assistance where police can notify residents of a crime and ask their communities for help related to an investigation.

 All the Request for Associate posts will be publicly viewable in the Neighbors feed and logged on a police agency’s profile. “Anyone interested in knowing more about how their police agency is using Request for Assistance posts can simply visit the agency’s profile and see the post history,” Ring said on its Thursday blog.

“We believe transparency and accountability are crucial to safer, better communities.” Ring said.

Police agencies will still have the right to issue warrants or court orders that are legally binding to obtain customer data or camera footage. Ring received 1,900 such requests in 2020 in the U.S., Ring reported in January.   The report shows that Ring gave police some or all their legal requests 58% of the time.

Voluntary requests outside of warrants or court order for data or video reached 22,335 incidents in 2020 in the U.S., according to a report in the Financial Times. (Subscription required.)

Privacy versus public safety

Ring’s latest decision demonstrates the complexity of balancing privacy with public safety, said analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates.

“The good news is that Amazon Ring is now making any requests for your video data transparent to you,” Gold said via email. “You’ll know and have to agree if you want your data used by police.”

“Disclosure is always a good thing and that has the effect of placating many consumers, but it also shifts liability away form Amazon for potential private lawsuits and pressure from special interest groups,” Gold added. “Ring can simply say they are allowing the consumer to make the decision.” 

The new policy also helps Amazon with potential state or federal legislation that could restrict the use of its cameras, he said.

Gold noted there have been many instances of ways that Ring has thwarted crimes or vandalism. “It’s a very complex issue,” he added “When does privacy preempt convenience or even public safety?”

“Disclosure is always good…requesting consumers to allow data sharing is much better than Amazon deciding,” he added.

Gold also warned, “This is not the final word. As we see more and more sensors used in our daily lives, there will be many conversations over who owns the data and who should be able to access it, even for public safety.”

“There is no way to stop the proliferation of sensors of all types. Ring is just one instance of public-focused sensors.”

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