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Ring Has Concerningly Tight Control of Videos and Public Info

Amazon’s Ring works with over 950 police departments nationwide and has great stores of recordings. Many are concerned about how Ring controls what police can say about the tech and about neighbor privacy and safety.

(TNS) — When a man from West Boca, Fla., was in California on business, all he could do about the man at his door with a rifle was watch in fear, knowing his family was inside the house.

The intruder was shown on the man’s cellphone app, recorded by his Ring doorbell camera nearly 3,000 miles away.

The man’s family called 911 and the gunman was arrested, one of many instances in which Ring Inc. touts its technology for helping to solve crimes.

At the same time, though, the company owned by Amazon is raising alarm among privacy advocates who warn that one of the world’s wealthiest corporations has created a nationwide surveillance network that tramples people’s rights and fosters racial stereotypes.

Ring has immense control over the video that gets archived, uses police departments to spread its influence and governs how police discuss the technology with the public, critics say.

A blog post by the company in August 2019 boasted partnerships with 405 law enforcement agencies nationwide. By March 2020, that number was over 950, including almost every police force in South Florida.

Partners include the Miami-Dade Police Department, Fort Lauderdale Police Department, Broward Sheriff’s Office, Boca Raton Police Department, Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office and more than 20 others in South Florida.

Tracking Your Movement

The Ring, arguably the most popular device of its type, can be used simply as a doorbell, or it can be set up to show only live video. It also includes an intercom that enables the user to speak with someone at the door.

But the arrangement that raises privacy concerns lets the homeowner record and archive video from anytime during the day, a function that costs a few bucks a month.

The gunman in West Boca is a rare example of the Ring’s use in a potentially dangerous situation. In most cases, the camera captures only petty crime, like the thief who took off with a package in Boynton Beach in December or the porch pirates in Pembroke Pines last year.

A growing number of organizations argue that these crimes do not justify surveillance that blurs the line between corporate and government surveillance and reveals personal information about people’s lives, especially people who do not own the devices or consent to being recorded by their neighbors.

“It’s one thing to worry about suspicious neighbors looking out between their curtains,” said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the speech, privacy and technology project at the ACLU. “It’s another if you are being recorded and potentially being reported to the police, and that’s especially true if you are a person of color or somebody else who is often cast as somebody who is, quote/unquote, ‘suspicious’ due to biases or prejudices.”

Some members of Congress have taken note of the concerns as well. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has requested documents related to Ring’s relationship with law enforcement agencies.

A number of U.S. senators also requested information from Ring about its partnerships with police departments as well as the potential for it to link footage with facial recognition technology.

Advocacy organizations want people to consider people’s privacy when the cameras are positioned in a way that takes video of roads, sidewalks or other people’s homes.

“We’re telling people to be mindful of their neighbors,” said Saira Hussain, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights and privacy organization.

“Ring as a company may be responsive to its customers, but it’s ignoring the larger issue of profiling within neighborhoods and about people who are walking about, doing their business, who are being captured on camera for no reason.”

The recorded content can offer a wealth of information about people’s work schedules, their vacation time and other personal information.

“If it was pointed at my property, I would be very upset,” said Stanley at the ACLU. “I would feel like [my neighbors] were spying on me.”

Filling The Market

Ring has not released sales numbers, but data analytics firm Jumpshot estimated the company’s sales at 100,000 to 400,000 per month last year, peaking around Black Friday and Christmas time.

The Ring “makes me feel a little more secure when I’m not home and that packages aren’t being left for people to steal,” said David Murray, who installed his ring in Boynton Beach in February 2018.

“I have not personally reported a crime, but the week I purchased and installed it, I had three men deliver a furniture piece when I wasn’t home and was able to see them looking through my windows, ‘scoping’ out the place," Murray said. "Once I spoke over the intercom to leave the furniture on the patio, they immediately stopped what they were doing and left. It’s honestly a great tracking tool sometimes, too.”

Meagan Gross, of Pompano Beach, said Ring has offered her a feeling of safety, after a few run-ins with a neighbor. But she understands that people who don’t look like her can be viewed as criminals or suspicious just for minding their own business.

“As a white woman who is a citizen, I know I don’t have the same fears as people of color or immigrants may have when law enforcement shows up at the door,” she said.

Ring is aware of those concerns and urges customers to take them into account, a spokesperson said by email.

“As privacy and video surveillance laws vary by jurisdiction, we strongly encourage all of our customers to respect their neighbors’ privacy and comply with any applicable laws when setting up their Ring device,” the spokesperson said.

Privacy aside, critics worry about subsidy programs in which cities and police departments offer cameras to the community for free or at a discounted rate, with police department representatives sometimes installing the cameras themselves.

These programs essentially draft police departments into Ring’s sales teams and then allow the company to exercise considerable control over how police communicate with the public, critics say.

“Ring has sought agreements that seek to turn law enforcement officers, public servants, into extensions of the Ring marketing machine,” Stanley said. “They’ve sought agreements that give Ring the right to sign off on what police departments tell their communities about their technology policy.”

Controlling The Message

Most agreements between the police and Ring say that Ring has the right to approve statements that police departments put out about Ring’s technology.

Ring’s agreement with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, for example, says, "The parties shall agree to a joint press release to be mutually agreed upon by the parties.”

That language also appears in the agreements between the company and the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, Boynton Beach Police Department and others.

Boca Raton’s agreement with Ring says, “Neither party may issue a press release related to City’s participation in this program without the prior approval of the other party.”

In some partnerships, Ring has explicitly told police departments not to use certain language like “surveillance” and “security cameras.”

“Ring actually controls a lot of the messaging that goes out by these police agencies,” said Hussain, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “We’ve seen documents where Ring is saying, ‘Please don’t say the word ‘surveillance’ in your press release to describe these doorbells.’”

Law enforcement officers can view or download footage recorded on these cameras a few ways. Users can post video publicly to the company’s Neighbors app, which can be viewed by other members within a few miles of that user, including the police department in that area.

Police officers also can request specific footage, and the camera’s owner can grant access to the officer, who can view or download the video.

If residents decline, cops can get the footage straight from Ring with a warrant or subpoena.

“If the homeowner does not respond to a video request from a detective, then we do not receive the video,” Casey Liening, public information specialist at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, said in an email. But, “if the video is important to an investigation and the request is not fulfilled, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department may initiate legal process to obtain the video through Ring’s legal team."

Mark Economou, spokesman for the Boca Raton Police Department, said the process is a more efficient way of canvassing neighborhoods for evidence.

“Basically it is the same as us going door to door asking to look at the video from a certain time frame, if someone says no we move on,” he said in an email. “This makes it easier to obtain the video instead of knocking on doors and waiting for people to come home.”

Representatives from Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade’s police departments said they do not track how many requests they send to residents for videos or how many cooperate.

In less than two months, the Broward Sheriff’s Office sent out about 63 requests for video to Ring users via the Neighbors App, according to public information officer Miranda Grossman. “The number of videos that are shared with detectives varies from case to case,” she said.

©2020 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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