Ring’s new police request policy is only the first step on a long road – CNET

Amazon Ring police home security doorbell surveillance

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Over the past two years, Ring has faced near-constant (and usually rightful) criticism for its security and police partnership policies, which facilitated video sharing between video doorbell owners and criminal investigators without the use of warrants. In response, Ring began to systematically improve its security, most notably requiring two-factor authentication for user log-in and implementing end-to-end video encryption, to make their devices more resistant to hackers.

But for all its security improvements, Ring, which is owned by Amazon, never substantively responded to criticisms of its police partnerships.

That changes next week when Ring will no longer allow police departments to contact its customers to ask for footage pertinent to active investigations. Instead, police can post “Requests for Assistance” on Ring’s Neighbors app timeline, which gives users a public forum for freely commenting on the requests. A “Tap here to help” button will also let Ring customers in the immediate vicinity of the incident under investigation privately share footage with police. (Ring will share information including your name, home address and email with the police if you use this option.)

In addition, Ring users can opt out of seeing these requests or receiving notifications that they’ve been posted.

Is this the big answer to Ring’s police problem? I think it’s a start, but by no means a finish. Consumer advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union agree. This measure adds more transparency to the footage request process. But it doesn’t address the more fundamental problem of Ring’s Neighbors app and the company’s relationship with police: namely, that Ring devices are slowly transforming public space into surveilled space and allowing Ring owners to decide on behalf of their whole neighborhood to share their recordings of that public space with police.

20210217-image-lifestyle-insitu-flcprogen1-blk-daytime-rgb-crop20210217-image-lifestyle-insitu-flcprogen1-blk-daytime-rgb-crop

Ring sells a wide range of video devices, including security cameras and video doorbells.


Ring

What exactly is Ring’s police problem?

Starting in 2018, Ring started reaching out to police departments across the country. To date, the company has partnered with 1,771 departments. These relationships positioned Ring as a mediator between its customers and law enforcement agencies — a powerful position considering Ring leads the market for video doorbells with an 18% share after selling 1.4 million doorbells in 2020, according to research firm Strategy Analytics. No. 2 ranked SkyBell sold about 800,000.

In the past, officers leading criminal investigations could submit a request form to Ring through the Neighbors Public Security Service tool, which had to include a case number and specific suspected crime. Officers could ask for up to 12 hours of footage from devices within half a mile of the incident.

A team of Ring-employed monitors who had undergone a six-week training period would then review requests to make sure they adhered to these guidelines. (Ring monitors would reject a request, for example, if police requested 24 hours of footage.) If the monitors accepted the request, Ring would send the request for video to the appropriate customers, if there were any in the area. If there weren’t any users nearby, Ring would not notify the investigators, so as not to encourage them to resubmit with new parameters. The emails Ring did send informed customers of their rights not to share footage with police, but also provided a link to do so.

The primary problem with Ring’s NPSS tool was how it enabled police overreach. Investigators could request footage of legal or even Constitutionally protected activity under the guise of investigating a broad set of potential crimes.

ring-video-doorbell-3-plusring-video-doorbell-3-plus

Ring video doorbells often capture footage of privacy property, such as a front stoop, and public space, such as the sidewalk beyond.


Megan Wollerton/CNET

We saw this problem in action in February this year, when news broke that Los Angeles police had submitted multiple video requests to Ring, explicitly in relation to BLM protests the summer before.

I spoke to Ring’s head of communications Yassi Shahmiri the day after the report broke.

“This LAPD Video Request meets our guidelines,” she told me, “as it includes a case number and specifically states that the [investigator] is requesting video to only identify individuals responsible for theft, property damage, and physical injury” (emphasis mine).

As I wrote at the time, this statement only highlighted the weakness of the policy in limiting police overreach — particularly in comparison to alternative means of police acquiring footage from users, such as requesting a warrant. Rather than granting a request to find one specific individual alleged to have committed one specific crime, Ring granted multiple requests for footage of a large group of people under suspicion of a broad set of various but nonspecific crimes.

Furthermore, the exchange demonstrated how Ring’s built-in guardrails for the NPSS tool broke down on a larger scale: In a highly populous urban setting, the half-mile radius limit meant the police could contact more potential Ring customers; and the 12-hour time window meant police could be requesting footage of Constitutionally protected demonstrations and protests, as well as of criminal activity.

Perhaps most damning of all was the general lack of transparency about the whole process. Last year, amid widespread unrest, hundreds of amateur videos (often caught on phone cameras) were shared on social media, capturing gross lack of restraint and overt abuse by police. Ring may not be responsible for police activity, but if its only defense against abuse (aside from the self-evidently insufficient request limitations) was an obscure review process moderated by employees with only six weeks of training, then customers and concerned citizens had no way of knowing whether police were exploiting the system.

neighbors-detail-page.pngneighbors-detail-page.png

Ring’s new “Request for Assistance” post format will provide all the same information as usual — including case numbers, investigator contact info, time range and incident area — but it will be accessible to all Neighbors app users.


Ring

So Ring solved the problem, right?

To my mind, Ring’s new procedures mostly pass the buck to police: Criminal investigators can make the same exact requests, providing the same exact information. But now those requests are public.

In other words, if police abuse the system by submitting overly broad requests to take advantage of overly willing community members, Ring won’t be seen as a primary party at fault — though, as a Ring representative told me, Ring still premoderates every post according to the same standards as before.

Tellingly, Ring’s own blog post on the new measures said, “[Now] anyone interested in knowing more about how their police agency is using Request for Assistance posts can simply visit the agency’s profile and see the post history.”

This measure may protect Ring’s interests, but it’s also a genuinely good thing for transparency. No longer will getting information on police video requests require in-depth investigations or Freedom of Information Act requests. If a department is abusing the system, people will be able to see that abuse immediately and even comment on it.

I spoke with EFF policy analyst Matthew Guariglia after Ring’s announced its policy change and he agrees the measure is an important first step.

“Ring has steadily been becoming one of the largest surveillance apparatuses in the nation,” said Guariglia. “So to have this reform where police have less-aided access to that footage is, I think, a pretty big victory for activists… [But] the work is not over because the police partnerships still exist.”

ACLU Senior Advocacy and Policy Analyst Chad Marlow agreed.

“I think the decision to stop sending unsolicited emails to members of the public … is a good step,” Marlow told me. “The problem is, [Ring is] now replacing it with something else that … still has the same policing problems as the other method. Which is, you are soliciting the public’s assistance in policing efforts, and we know that policing efforts fall differently on different groups in America … They need to be asking different questions.”

The LAPD gave no comment when asked about Ring’s policy change. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Asking the right questions

Both Guariglia and Marlow say the fundamental problems with Ring’s police partnerships and Neighbors app — where all this video-sharing happens — aren’t truly solved by the company’s new Request for Assistance posts.

First off, as Marlow pointed out, the new posting system doesn’t do anything to stop police abuse; it just makes it easier to track. Without ever leaving their desk, an investigator can post a Request for Assistance and potentially receive multiple camera angles of a public street of their choosing — just like the LAPD were doing last summer. That ease of access should worry us — not for the crime it could prevent, but for the abuse it potentially enables.

“What [this new measure] does not change is that there still exists in the country a massive, centralized surveillance network,” said Guariglia. “As long as that footage is somewhere, police can get access to it eventually.”

Second, the Neighbors app encourages people to police their own communities, amplifying suspicion and racism. In an investigation of the Neighbors app in 2019, Motherboard found people of color were disproportionately labeled “suspicious,” in a sample of 100 posts in New York. Posts on the app often devolved into verbal attacks directed at those caught on camera — whether they were walking past the door, dropping off packages or committing petty theft.

Ring has made changes to the Neighbors app in the year and a half since the report, for example replacing the “suspicious” label with “unexpected activity.” I recently opened the Neighbors app and found the title of the top local post to be “Suspicious activity,” with the smaller “unexpected activity” label above it — so the language of suspicion appears to be intact despite the change.

Marlow is skeptical of the efficacy of such changes, even with moderators checking posts. “If you tell someone they’re not allowed to say someone is suspicious because they’re Black,” he said, “then they’ll say ‘they’re looking around funny’.”

Ring’s problems don’t just affect their customers; they can damage whole communities. This is the third big problem with the Neighbors app: A small minority of residents, along with a police force, should not be able to make the decision to transform public spaces into recorded spaces.

cnet-black-friday-best-buy-ring-video-doorbell-2cnet-black-friday-best-buy-ring-video-doorbell-2

Video doorbell devices allow a single resident to make far-reaching privacy decisions on behalf of their whole neighborhood.


Chris Monroe/CNET

Ring’s devices are different from the cameras businesses have been using for years, in large part because they’re disproportionately recording residential areas. In short, being filmed while shopping for clothes at a store feels less intrusive to many people than being filmed while playing in your front yard with your children.

Some communities are already instituting laws to force police to seek approval before adopting new surveillance technologies. Ring should be cooperating with such efforts of community education and mobilization, not just handing off the responsibility of monitoring police requests to concerned citizens on the Neighbors app.

This brings us to the final big problem: the nature of Ring’s ongoing relationships with police.

“The problems with the police partnerships [is] not just the requests,” said Guariglia. “It’s also the chummy relationship between one of the world’s largest corporations and police departments, which include … free devices [and] discount codes in exchange for police going out and marketing their product.”

I’ve asked Shahmiri about Ring’s relationship with police departments before — and specifically about Ring’s history of asking police to promote their products.

“We never required law enforcement to do any sort of promotion of our devices as a condition of receiving our devices,” said Shahmiri. “It was more so an ‘ask’ as opposed to a requirement.”

Nonbinding though these “asks” were, they represented an inappropriate conflict of interest: Police should not be promoting a private business’s products in return for greater and easier access to video footage of public spaces.

Shahmiri said Ring has stopped asking police to promote their products, but the tit-for-tat nature of the relationship is inescapable, even if it’s become more implicit.

In short, no single feature will fix Ring’s police problem, because it’s not one discrete problem — it’s a cocktail that degrades community privacy and enables police overreach. Ring’s new measures will improve transparency for its partnerships with police forces, and we should applaud the company for that first step. But then we should start asking for the second step, and the third.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *