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Privacy advocates concerned about Amazon marketing facial recognition to Ring doorbell police partners

Posted: 7:11 AM, Oct 14, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-15 22:01:25-04
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Dozens of Florida police departments have partnered with Amazon’s Ring video doorbell to create a massive surveillance network promoted as a way to keep residents safe, but the I-Team uncovered how tax dollars are used to market the private company’s products.

The police partnerships with the surveillance camera company also raise new questions about privacy after I-Team Investigator Adam Walser uncovered a marketing push to sign up some of these same law enforcement agencies for Amazon facial recognition software.

“Face recognition has the potential to basically allow the police to follow everybody everywhere they go,” said ACLU attorney Jay Stanley. “It automatically recognizes you where you are and when you’re there and who you’re with.”

Stanley says even law-abiding citizens should be concerned.

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“We end up living in a place where there’s blanket video surveillance of everything everybody’s doing and we’re not always sure who’s getting access to that video,” said Stanley.

Ring, which was bought by Amazon in 2018, has inked partnership agreements with more than 400 law enforcement agencies nationwide, including more than 65 in Florida and dozens in the Tampa Bay area.

Ring released this map showing its law enforcement partner agencies:

Those agreements, obtained by the I-Team, give law enforcement agencies special access to Ring camera locations and request surveillance camera video through Ring and its Neighbors app.

The I-Team obtained documents showing Ring provides local law enforcement with training, free cameras and incentives for signing up new customers.

At the same time Ring is growing its Neighbors app network, the I-Team found Amazon is contacting some of those same agencies about Amazon Rekognition, technology which Amazon bills as providing “highly accurate facial analysis and facial recognition.”

Privacy experts told the I-Team the best way for homeowners to protect their privacy is by using their own security cameras and saving the videos to a private hard drive – not the cloud. Ring video is uploaded to and stored in the cloud – a global network of remote servers.

Bradenton Police Capt. Brian Thiers, whose agency signed an agreement to partner with Ring in 2018, said his officers regularly use the network’s surveillance videos.

“This is a great crime-fighting tool. This is a great crime prevention tool. This is a great public safety tool,” said Thiers. “We can zero in or zoom out to however big of an area we want.”

Thiers said Ring provides a portal which allows officers to see which cameras in a neighborhood may have captured images of crimes, missing people or suspects and then make requests for those videos.

Ring also gave the Bradenton Police Department 18 free cameras.

“The camera owners send it back to Ring, then they send it to us,” said Thiers. “We check it every time we have a crime.”

Ring provided 80 free cameras to the Tampa Police Department and agreed to provide one new camera for every 20 downloads of the Neighbors app in that city.

The I-Team found the Tampa Police Department as well as law enforcement agencies in Manatee, Pasco and Hernando counties have promoted Ring on social media, at community watch meetings and events, including National Night Out.

“It’s a marketing tool,” said St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Michael Kovacsev.

Kovacsev said the St. Petersburg Police Department has another program allowing residents and business owners to register surveillance camera locations, but the department has turned down multiple offers from Ring.

“It’s their product. It’s their position to sell it. It shouldn’t be our responsibility to partner with them,” said Kovacsev.

Ring has also come under fire for making people unnecessarily afraid of strangers.

Millions of Ring subscribers have signed up for the Neighbors app, which allows users to share reports and video clips of suspected criminal activity online. But the I-Team found users posting alerts about salespeople, missionaries and even school children walking by while wearing backpacks.

Kovacsev said, “There’s a balance because you have to realize that not everybody is out to cause harm or a criminal.”

Tampa resident Felicia Bowman, who signed up for Ring in 2018, said her camera subscription with the company makes her feel safer.

“The Neighbors app, I like because there's a lot of things I see on the app that doesn't make the news,” said Bowman.

Bowman said she has no plans to get rid of her ring doorbell anytime soon.

“It’s worth the security,” said Bowman. “You don’t have a guard dog, so this kind of works.”

But Stanley of the ACLU said the bigger Ring’s surveillance network gets, the greater the potential threat.

“The question you need to ask is whether you’re empowering yourself or whether you’re not accidentally empowering somebody else, like the police or Amazon or hackers,” Stanley said.

Ring did not return multiple emails from the I-Team seeking comment last week.

But on Friday evening, Ring Founder Jamie Siminoff blasted out an email to Ring users, saying he wanted to provide details about law enforcement use of the Neighbors Portal, which he described as "an extension of the Neighbors app that allows local law enforcement to engage with our customers."

In the email, Siminoff said Ring doesn't give police direct access to user cameras but allows video requests.

"We will continue to prioritize privacy, security, and user control as we pursue and improve technologies to help achieve our mission of making neighborhoods safer," said Siminoff in the email.

Ring Founder Jamie Siminoff sent this email to Ring users Oct. 11:

Dear Neighbor,

At Ring, our mission is to make neighborhoods safer. It’s our belief that when communities work together, safer neighborhoods become a reality, which is why we created the Neighbors app.

The foundation of Neighbors is that as a customer, you are in control of your security, devices and personal information, and that your privacy is our priority. It’s that simple.

The Neighbors Portal is an extension of the Neighbors app that allows local law enforcement to engage with our customers. We want to share details about how we’ve designed the Neighbors Portal:
• No access to devices.
Law enforcement are never given access to users cameras or devices through the Neighbors Portal or by Ring.
• No direct access to users when making video requests.
 
Your local law enforcement agency can use Neighbors to request assistance in an investigation. To protect your privacy and your ability to decline the request, law enforcement must go through the Neighbors Portal when making a request. You have 100% control – if you choose not to share, or you opt out of future requests , your local law enforcement will never know as you’ll remain totally anonymous.
• No user account information.
Users are identified in the Neighbors Portal only as “Neighbor #”. Although law enforcement knows the users posting content reside within their jurisdiction, law enforcement cannot see or access user account information.
• No device location.
The Neighbors Portal does not provide law enforcement with the addresses at which any devices are located.
Here’s an example of what happens when residents and law enforcement come together:
Ring Partners with Police to Help Fight Crime, Good Morning America

As a Ring customer, you place your trust in us to help protect your home and community, and we take that responsibility seriously. We will continue to prioritize privacy, security, and user control as we pursue and improve technologies to help achieve our mission of making neighborhoods safer.

To learn more about how Ring has helped communities and local law enforcement work together while protecting customer privacy, click here . And if you would like to get your community more involved, click here .

Thanks,
Jamie

UPDATE:
Amazon emailed the following statement to the I-Team at 8pm on Oct. 14:
"The ACLU is once again knowingly misusing and misrepresenting Amazon Rekognition to make headlines. As we’ve said many times in the past, when used with the recommended 99% confidence threshold and as one part of a human driven decision, facial recognition technology can be used for a long list of beneficial purposes, from assisting in the identification of criminals to helping find missing children to inhibiting human trafficking. We continue to advocate for federal legislation of facial recognition technology to ensure responsible use, and we’ve shared our specific suggestions for this both privately with policy makers and on our blog."
Update: Ring emailed the following statements to the I-Team at 9:13 on October 15:

"Ring does not require or force police to promote our products, nor do we dictate what police should say regarding Ring and Neighbors app. The claim that we coach police in order to get customers to hand over their footage is false. Customers choose whether or not they want to share footage. Law enforcement can only submit requests for video footage to users in a given area when investigating an active case. Ring facilitates these requests and user consent is required in order for any footage or information to be shared with law enforcement. Law enforcement is not able to see any information related to which Ring users received a request and whether they declined to share or opt-out of future requests.”

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate email adam@abcactionnews.com.