Amazon’s Ring home security company is no stranger to controversy. In 2018, it was revealed that footage, both from outside and inside customer’s homes, was accessed, unencrypted, by a variety of Ring employees with no reason to need the footage. Engineers at the company used the cameras to watch each other in their homes as a joke, and only needed a customer’s email address to watch them.
Now, though, it’s Ring’s close ties with over 400 police departments nationwide that are under scrutiny. It makes sense for a home security company to have some relationships with local law enforcement, but aspects of Ring’s particular business model have come under fire. It has been widely reported that Ring is working towards integrating Amazon’s facial recognition software into the cameras. No facial recognition software is perfect, though, and it has been shown that these programs have a significant racial bias, misidentifying BIPOC and women at rates much higher than white men. These misidentifications can lead to wrongful arrests and serious consequences for those who have been erroneously named suspects by these programs. In addition to facial recognition, Ring filed a patent in November 2018 for a system that would “identify suspicious persons and create a database of suspicious persons”. Being added to a suspicious persons list simply for the crime of looking shady to a program as a result of footage you did not consent to being collected is extremely likely to disproportionately target non-White people and is an extreme violation of privacy.
Even without facial recognition, civil rights organizations are calling Ring a “threat to civil liberties, privacy, and civil rights.” Senator Edward J. Markey wrote in an open letter to Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, that Ring “places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities.” Concerns have come up about police utilizing Ring footage to identify protestors during this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, and that these close relationships allow the possibility of a surveillance network that would be otherwise illegal to accomplish.
Not only are these relationships concerning in the access that it grants police departments, but also in the way that it gives Ring access to police departments. In 2019, Ring cameras, rather than the more typical cash reward, were being handed out by police in exchange for information. Scripts written by the company are published by police chiefs to announce deals and by individual officers to promote the product. There is often a clause in the contracts between Ring and police departments that bans the department from making unapproved statements about Ring, including using the word “surveillance” to refer to the company. The ethics of having a specific product promoted by governmental agencies is already dubious at best, but having police departments essentially advertise, and in some cases, subsidize, a camera that leads to invasions of privacy by that same department is an overstep of massive proportions.
In an ironic twist of fate, new documents show that the FBI is concerned that Ring doorbells have the potential to act in an anti-police capacity. These doorbells could alert owners of police presence before they make themselves known, and also have the capability to capture abuses by police that may otherwise have remained unknown.
It seems clear that for a home security system to be effective, it should have some connection to the police. But Ring’s relationships, cemented contractually, have moved beyond what could be considered appropriate. Using police as advertising is an unethical business practice, and many of their other business decisions seem irresponsible at best, contributing to a racially anxious climate that allows for abuse by both police and neighbors. How should Ring be interacting with local police? What kinds of trades are acceptable when it comes to privacy and security?