Ring, the smart doorbell home security system Amazon bought for over $1 billion last year, is involved in some fairly unnerving arrangements with local law enforcement agencies. Wouldn’t you like to know if the cops in your town are among them?
That’s precisely what Shreyas Gandlur, an incoming senior studying electrical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign put together, using Amazon’s own demands for narrative control over the law enforcement agencies it works with to help build an interactive map:
“I started out with the map created by Fight For The Future,” Gandlur told Gizmodo over Twitter DM, referring to the activist group’s broader project to visualize the state of facial recognition. The initiative includes other programs, like those spun up by the TSA, as well as tracks which cities and municipalities have passed legislation specifically banning the use of such technology. Where ring is concerned, FFTF’s map only includes about 50 cities, a far cry from the “more than 225" police departments reported by Gizmodo late last month. (Ring has declined to share the exact figure.) Finding the rest was, in a sense, trivial.
“Ring pre-writes almost all of the messages shared by police across social media, and attempts to legally obligate police to give the company final say on all statements about its products,” my colleague Dell Cameron wrote, a detail Gandlur seized on.
“I added a bunch of agencies I found by literally searching ‘excited to join neighbors by ring’ on Twitter and searching similar phrases on Google,” Gandlur said. “Nothing too complicated and it’s pretty funny that Ring controlling the content of police press releases came to my aid since basically every agency releases the same statement.” If Ring hoped to obfuscate which towns were using for surveillance purposes, it clearly failed.
A flurry of reports from Gizmodo and Motherboard have made Ring the latest brand under Amazon’s umbrella to come under scrutiny for its privacy implications. But Amazon itself deploys other products toward those ends. Amazon is equally infamous for developing its Rekognition face recognition software suite, which critics have assailed as being inaccurate and capable of impeding civil liberties. The company’s explanations to press and lawmakers have been insufficient to curb concerns, and employees have gone so far as to try to limit the software’s sale through a shareholder initiative. The arc of Rekognition’s story, much like Ring, has been towards loud voices pushing back against invasive technology, and Amazon more or less continuing to pursue business as usual.
“It’s important to note that these aren’t all large towns/counties. Many have populations in the hundreds or thousands,” Gandlur explained, “So if you’re not happy with your town joining these agreements, the biggest thing you can do is speak up, be it by contacting your local officials or speaking up at city council meetings, or even just telling other people about what’s going on. Lots of people still don’t know about these agreements.” He stressed, however, that his map is likely incomplete, and that the absence of a specific city from his data “doesn’t mean you’re safe.”
So far, a few bills have been introduced at the federal level that would curb the broad power facial recognition currently has to collect data without affirmative consent, though none have yet been voted into law.