Ring’s controversial relationship with police departments nationwide has landed the Amazon-owned home security company in the crosshairs of congressional concern.
Senator Edward Markey sent a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos on Thursday outlining concerns about how footage from the company’s doorbell cameras is accessed by authorities. The document also includes a list of 10 questions regarding Ring’s handling of user data for which Markey requests a response by September 26.
A Ring spokesperson told Gizmodo the company is currently reviewing the letter and declined to comment further.
Markey is the latest to join a chorus of digital rights and privacy advocates raising questions about Ring’s practices as more information about the company’s contracts with more agencies across the U.S. has come to light.
“The scope and nature of Ring’s partnership with police forces raise additional civil liberties concerns,” Markey wrote in his letter. “The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities.”
Amazon, a leading developer of law enforcement facial-recognition software, acquired Ring last summer in a $1 billion deal, raising additional concerns about the company’s surveillance ending up in the hands of law enforcement should it begin incorporating biometric information. This software has been shown time and time again to work much crappier when identifying darker skin tones. Markey cites this fact in his letter, saying “a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”
The senator goes onto to ask about several of the company’s practices, including what safeguards it requires of police when handling user-provided footage, whether Ring has consulted with any civil liberty or criminal justice experts, and if the company has any plans to tackle racial bias if it moves forward with plans to incorporate facial recognition technology.
Police and Ring have previously described their partnership as a sort of digital neighborhood watch, one that builds on the company’s existing surveillance and social network infrastructure and embodies its “Protection at every corner” sales pitch. While the company has publically disclosed partnerships with 400 police departments, Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff said it aims to “have every law enforcement agency” using its resources according to a recent CBS interview.
According to Ring, contracted departments have access to an online platform or “portal” where they can request footage from the company’s customers. Users who are part of Ring’s “neighborhood watch” app, Neighbors, and within a certain radius of a police-provided address then receive a message asking them to “Share Your Ring Videos Now”.
Though sharing is entirely voluntary, a fact which a disclaimer accompanying the message underlines, Motherboard recently reported that the company coaches police on how to persuade users into handing over their device’s footage if they’re not immediately forthcoming. Additionally, Gizmodo first reported last week that Ring tracked how users responded to these calls for footage—whether they assented, declined, or failed to reply—and provided this data to police upon request. Gizmodo acquired emails detailing the practice as recently as September 2018.
Ring’s contracts with police often include measures requiring Ring review and occasionally write press statements about the company attributed to police, as Gizmodo has previously reported. In at least one case Gizmodo found, the company scrubbed all mentions of “surveillance” and “security cameras” from a police statement, ironically citing that the terms could “flag user privacy concerns.”
Even still, Ring would prefer to have an even greater hand in local police business than some of its partnerships currently allow. Gizmodo previously reported that the company is pursuing contracts that will let it access information from 911 calls to curate “crime news” posts for its Neighbors app. Neighborhood crimes only happen so often, after all, and Ring needs a reason for users to continually tune into its app. The company has confirmed it receives location information from emergency dispatch data, but disputes claims that it publishes any of that to its app.