In early 2018, Amazon bought Ring, a manufacturer specializing in interphones and smart cameras. The business is growing, but in a controversial way: the company closed deals with more than 400 police departments in the United States to fight crime through videos obtained with Ring devices.
The partnerships allow partner police departments to request access to videos recorded by Ring cameras, without the need for a court order.
Owners may or may not agree to grant access, but permission is often given: Residents seek security when installing cameras, so they often collaborate when the police argue that the images can help with investigations or identify suspicious activity .
In a way, Ring equipment creates a surveillance network. It all starts with the Neighbors app, available for Android and iOS. Through it, the user can access the images from the camera in real time to know who is knocking on his door, for example, even if he is not at home.
The application also allows the user to trigger or access security alerts issued by their neighbors, or communicate with them or the police to help locate suspects who appear in the images, for example. Alerts can also be issued automatically by the cameras.
This is where the controversy begins. For privacy and digital rights groups, such as Fight for the Future, Amazon is encouraging neighbors to spy on each other, creating a for-profit surveillance state.
The agreements made with the police departments are also the target of criticism. The authorities have access to the Neighbors Portal, which shows on a map the geographic locations of the houses that have Ring devices, so that the police can request relatively easily the images recorded by them.
Here, the biggest concern is that these requests will end up becoming excessive to the point of undermining basic civil liberties.
For Jay Stanley, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, the program can generate large amounts of data for the Amazon cloud and allow authorities to access it without maintaining a commitment to privacy. It is no coincidence that there are already petitions calling for these partnerships to be revoked.
But there is nothing to indicate that this is going to happen. In recent post on Ring’s blog, Amazon itself admitted that 405 law enforcement agencies have already joined the program. This number only tends to increase.