Amazon’s home security company Ring quietly removed the term “surveillance” from a statement law enforcement officials provided to local news outlets, according to public records obtained by Gizmodo.
Emails this March between Ring and the Ewing Police Department in New Jersey show the company edited a quote attributed to the city’s chief of police, John Stemler, to remove the words “surveillance” and “security cameras” from his statement before it was given to reporters. The emails also suggest that doing so is common practice. Ring removes the terms, a company representative wrote, so as not to “confuse” residents.
As Gizmodo previously reported, Ring’s contracts with police give the company final say over any statements police issue about its products.
Ewing P.D. announced it was adopting Ring’s Neighbors app in March. The partnership enables police to request access to surveillance footage captured by Ring’s doorbell cameras through the Neighbors app, which is advertised to police as a way to “solve more cases with one click.” In May, the P.D. launched a subsidy program with Ring aimed at giving 200 residents a $100 discount toward the purchase of Ring security devices. The city put up $10,000 for the program.
Ewing police officers were also given a discount code granting them $50 off Ring purchases—a common incentive provided to law enforcement, according to emails obtained by Gizmodo from police departments in multiple states.
The emails show that Ewing P.D. used one of Ring’s pre-written press releases when announcing its adoption of the company’s Neighbors app, inserting a quote attributed to Chief Stemler. The quote originally included the sentence: “Security cameras have been proven to be essential in deterring crime, and surveillance systems have assisted in closing cases that may have otherwise gone unsolved.” However, the sentence was crossed out by Ring’s public relations coordinator, who then sent the statement back to the department, telling them it was “good to go” whenever the department wished to distribute it to their “local press list.”
The coordinator explained the change saying that Ring has “learned to avoid” using the terms “surveillance” and “security cameras” in its “initial PR especially” because doing so might “confuse residents into thinking this program requires a Ring device or other system to participate or that it provides any sort of direct access to user devices and information.”
Ring’s version of the chief’s quote is what ultimately appeared in the statement distributed to reporters. Ewing P.D. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Additional documents obtained by privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur show that Ring provided a different reason in an email to police in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. “Emphasis on camera/video and using terms like ‘surveillance’ can flag user privacy concerns and take away from one of the key points to drive in the announcement which is that anyone can (and should!) download the app to participate,” a Ring manager wrote. (Emphasis ours.)
In an email Monday, a Ring representative told Gizmodo: “Ring requests to look at press releases and any messaging prior to distribution to ensure our company and our products and services are accurately represented.”
Ring’s review of police statements about its products is more than a “request,” however. Its contracts with law enforcement agencies typically grant Ring final approval over any remarks public officials issue about its products. In the case of Ewing P.D., the department is forbidden from using the company’s “name, logo, or likeness” in any press release without the Ring’s permission. Likewise, Ring cannot use Ewing P.D.’s name in any advertising unless the department gives its approval.
Motherboard first reported on the Ring contracts’ terms last month.
Ring advertises Neighbors as a “neighborhood watch” app, the use of which doesn’t require ownership of a Ring surveillance device. Users are encouraged to provide crime tips to police who are in turn encouraged to interact with users as much as possible through the app’s law enforcement portal. In one email, a Ring representative instructed Ewing P.D. to “Comment on every Neighbor post.”
Ring also urges police to churn out content for the app, instructing them to post “success stories”—cases in which a suspect was apprehended with the help of Ring surveillance footage or use of the Neighbors app. Ring’s “partner success associates” will even reach out to police officers when they notice them using Facebook instead of Neighbors, often pre-writing their Neighbors posts for them.
“I am just coming across the departments Facebook page about seeking to identify a suspect,” one Ring associate wrote in an email to an Ewing police officer this month. “This is also another great opportunity for yourself to post this alert through the Portal! This alert will hit the residents that have not logged into Facebook at all today[.] That are out shopping or the residents that are at work!”
Gizmodo previously reported that Ring sought access to real-time 911 caller data. In particular, it sought permission to access to computer-aided dispatch (CAD) feeds, which are used to automate and improve the decisions of emergency dispatchers, in order to provide “alerts” about alleged criminal activity in users’ vicinity. Several agencies, including the Dallas and Los Angeles police departments, told Gizmodo they declined to provide Ring access to 911 data.
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Additional reporting by Mario Aguilar
Update, 8/29: Updated with additional information provided by privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur.