To Stop Threat of ‘For-Profit Surveillance,’ Rights Groups Demand End to Partnerships That Give Cops Access to Amazon Ring Data

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Yves here. We’ve been alarmed by the aggressive Amazon Ring spyware scheme, so it’s gratifying to see some pushback. But it will likely take a lot more to force restrictions.

By Jake Johnson, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams

A coalition of rights groups Tuesday called on elected officials around the country at the state and federal level to end Amazon Ring’s surveillance partnerships with law enforcement due to the “serious threat” the collaborations pose to civil liberties.

In an open letter, 36 civil rights groups warned that Ring’s doorbell surveillance technology “creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely.”

“In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI,” the groups said.

The Washington Post reported in August that Ring has established “video-sharing partnerships” with more than 400 police forces across the U.S., handing law enforcement “potential access to homeowners’ camera footage and a powerful role in what the company calls the nation’s ‘new neighborhood watch.'”

The civil rights groups demanded that mayors and city councils require that law enforcement cancel all existing partnerships with Amazon ring and pass oversight measures to “deter police departments from entering into such agreements in the future.”

The groups also urged Congress to investigate Ring’s surveillance practices.

Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, one of the letter’s signatories, said in a statement that Amazon Ring “has created the perfect end run around our democratic process by entering into for-profit surveillance partnerships with local police departments.”

According to Greer, “Amazon police departments have easy access to surveillance network without oversight or accountability. Amazon Ring’s customers provide the company with the footage needed to build their privately owned, nationwide surveillance dragnet. We’re the ones who pay the cost—as they violate our privacy rights and civil liberties.”

“Our elected officials are supposed to protect us, both from abusive policing practices and corporate overreach,” added Greer. “These partnerships are a clear case of both.”

Leonard Scott IV, campaign Manager on criminal justice at Color of Change, said “Amazon is seeking to profit from mass surveillance by providing police with even more apparatuses, that we know will be used to target black and brown people.”

“We know that technology is already flawed and when used improperly and without government oversight, it will be abused and can put people at risk for being misidentified and falsely matched for crimes,” said Scott. “With this letter, we call on local, state, and federal officials to put an end to the harmful Amazon Ring police partnerships.”

Read the open letter:

Dear local, state, and federal officials,

The Washington Post has reported that there are currently more than 400 police departments across the United States who have entered into surveillance partnerships with Amazon’s camera enabled doorbell company, Ring. These partnerships pose a serious threat to civil rights and liberties, especially for black and brown communities already targeted and surveilled by law enforcement.

A key component of the partnership turns police departments into marketing agencies and police officers into salespeople for Amazon. Amazon provides officers with talking points to promote their technology and products to residents, and requests departments market the products at city events. While Amazon gives participating departments free products for promotion, the majority of the products are privately purchased from Amazon. In some municipalities taxpayer money has been used to subsidize Amazon surveillance products for residents’ use. On the back end, Amazon carefully scripts everything that authorities say about the program, and coaches police on the best talking points to get customers to hand over their footage.

With no oversight and accountability, Amazon’s technology creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely. In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI.

Amazon’s internal corporate policies raise serious privacy concerns. The Ring technology gives Amazon employees and contractors in the U.S. and Ukraine direct access to customers’ live camera feeds, a literal eye inside their homes and areas surrounding their homes. These live feeds provide surveillance on millions of American families—from a baby in their crib to someone walking their dog to a neighbor playing with young children in their yard—and other bystanders that don’t know they are being filmed and haven’t given their consent. Additionally, the technology has no end-to-end encryption leaving this extremely private and sensitive footage vulnerable to cyber-attacks, stalkers, or foreign governments.

Amazon has not been transparent about plans to integrate facial recognition into Ring cameras. Amazon Ring has denied any connection between their technology and facial recognition software, but according to the Washington Post, Ring filed two patents in November 2018 that describe technology with the ability to identify “suspicious people” and create a “database of suspicious persons.” Ring’s terms of service allow the company to “access and use your User Recordings” for “developing new Products and Services,” which covers facial recognition. The Information reported Ring’s Ukraine-based research team accessed customer’s surveillance footage to train image recognition software. As facial recognition software has been shown to disproportionately misidentify people of color, women, and transgender people, it further compounds existing civil liberties concerns and expands suspected criminality centered in racial profiling and gender bias.

As Amazon continues to grow in influence, so do the costs and effects of their domination. Freedom of information requests reveal Amazon carefully scripted and regulated the talking points police departments could use in discussing the Amazon-police partnership. Departments were forbidden from using words like ‘surveillance’ in any communication related to the partnership. This level of censorship and control is indicative of Amazon’s business model of using monopolistic practices to vacuum up enormous amounts of data. That data is then leveraged to bolster Amazon’s corporate interests, often at the expense of local businesses and smaller competitors. Amazon’s latest encroachment with the Ring-police partnerships exemplify the company’s willingness to do what it takes to expand their data empire. Once they have this data, there is nothing stopping them from using it for their own profit-driven purposes.

Amazon Ring partnerships with police departments threaten civil liberties, privacy, and civil rights, and exist without oversight or accountability. Given its significant risks, no surveillance partnerships with Amazon Ring should have been established, or should be established in the future, without substantial community engagement and input and elected official approval. To that end, we call on mayors and city councils to require police departments to cancel any and all existing Amazon Ring partnerships, and to pass surveillance oversight ordinances that will deter police departments from entering into such agreements in the future. We further call on Congress to investigate Ring’s practices and demand more transparency from the company.

Sincerely,

The undersigned:

Fight for the Future, Media Justice, Color of Change, Secure Justice, Demand Progress, Defending Rights & Dissent, Muslim Justice League, X-Lab, Media Mobilizing Project, Restore The Fourth, Inc., Media Alliance, Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project, Center for Human Rights and Privacy, Oakland Privacy, Justice For Muslims Collective, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Nation Digital Inclusion Alliance, Project On Government Oversight, OpenMedia, Council on American-Islamic Relations-SFBA, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, MPower Change, Mijente, Access Humboldt, RAICES, National Immigration Law Center, The Tor Project, United Church of Christ, Office of Communication Inc., the Constitutional Alliance, RootsAction.org, CREDO Action, Presente.org, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and United We Dream.

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11 comments

  1. doug

    Thanks for this. I have found it hard to convince usually paranoid folks about the issues around Ring. This will help.

    Reply
  2. Synoia

    ATT was reported, and probably still is, forwarding all call data (called and calling parties) to the USG. The USG states this is legal because the USG needs a warrant to access their collection of this data.

    Which is a nice legal fig-leaf, but not credible.

    Would the same “rules” apply to ring data? Especially when the motivating excuse is “we must watch those foreigners” who don’t have so-called “constitutional protections”.

    Once the ring pictures are collected, the data exists, the will to use it exists, and for the Government to protect itself from being held accountable will be “National Security.”

    It is the collection of data without consent which needs to be prevented.

    Reply
  3. TimH

    It won’t be long before HOAs insist on Ring being installed on every property within the estate. The pushback for rental unit surveillance will probably be successful, but owners knowingly agree to HOA control when buying a property, so that may be tougher.

    Reply
  4. The Rev Kev

    People might remember the old 1966 scifi movie “Fahrenheit 451”. At one point, the hero of the film was on the run from the authorities after being caught hoarding books. An alert for him was put out on the media and it cut to a suburban street scene where all the families came out out of their homes to the front street and started looking up and down the street itself to see if they could spot the fugitive.
    And now we have Amazon Ring to do the same thing.

    Reply
  5. Arizona Slim

    I looked at Ring, but the build quality of the unit didn’t impress me. So, I didn’t buy one.

    Gotta resist crapification any way I can.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      Perhaps Ring was developed with the police in mind? Having four hundred separate police departments as customers must have required some research, planning, and then marketing.

      Truly a farsighted, profitable melding of business, information technology, and the police into the Capitalist Surveillance Security State. The next step in our country’s evolution.

      Reply
  6. unhappyCakeEater

    neither amazon nor law enforcement have proven themselves good stewards of subject people’s privacy. They have not shown restraint in their intrusions. Predictable behavior and compliance is the goal. It will always be thus

    Reply

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