The Ring video doorbell is Amazon’s latest infiltration into Americans’ everyday lives, and even though it offers customers convenience and a sense of security, it’s also attracting scrutiny.
Amazon already dominates how we shop for goods online; its Web Services arm is the backbone of numerous internet companies; and its Prime Video and Music services are angling to become primary ways we watch and listen to media. As its influence has expanded, Amazon has become a political and social flashpoint, facing accusations from politicians, activists, and its own sellers that it relies on monopolistic e-commerce practices, that it mistreats its workers, that it doesn’t pay enough in taxes, and that its relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Palantir facilitates human rights abuses at the US’s southern border.
Now the company’s Ring cameras are stoking fears that the e-commerce giant is further encroaching on people’s privacy as Ring turns neighborhoods into surveillance operations and profits from the false perception that crime is on the rise. The company’s social media app, where users can share the surveillance their devices record, has been shown to exacerbate racial stereotypes and profiling. Critics view Ring’s growing partnerships with local police departments as self-serving and a way for a private company to use the public sector and taxpayer money to promote its own interests.
What exactly is Ring, anyway?
Ring is a smart security device company. It’s best known for its video doorbell, which allows Ring users to see, talk to, and record people who come to their doorsteps. Acquired by Amazon for $839 million in early 2018, the company sells wifi-enabled products that integrate with its social media app called Neighbors, where users can post videos of suspicious activity and crimes outside their front doors, as well as view posts from other people within a 5-mile radius.
Ring’s low-cost security devices are part of the fastest-growing segment of smart devices, with shipments expected to grow about 21 percent every year through 2023, according to the market research firm IDC. Ring says it has “millions of users” worldwide but wouldn’t provide a specific number. The devices are meant to deter theft, which, conveniently, also protects Amazon’s e-commerce business from losses on stolen packages.
For full access to Ring’s capabilities, on top of device costs users pay a subscription fee that ranges from $30 (video saving and sharing) to $100 (professional monitoring) annually.
What does its social media app Neighbors do?
If you install a Ring device, you’re automatically enrolled in its Neighbors social media app. People without Ring devices can also use the app, where they can anonymously read or post — using video or not — about crime, safety, suspicious activity, and lost pets within 5 miles of their home. The app also alerts users to real-time 911 call data as well as content from its own news team.
Posts largely discuss “suspicious” people and stolen Amazon packages, and people often post video footage alongside commentary. Trained moderators attempt to remove racist posts, but plenty of examples of racial profiling persist on the app. A Vice review of Ring user posts around its Brooklyn headquarters found that the majority of those reported as “suspicious” were people of color.
Neighbors is one of several increasingly popular fear-based social media apps, whose focus on crime gives people the mistaken perception that crime is increasing despite actual crime being at its lowest rate in decades.
Hacking and security on Ring
Ring devices have been the subject a series of high-profile hacks, including one in which a man used a family’s Ring to harass an 8-year-old girl in her bedroom in Mississippi. The company has stated that the hacks were “in no way related to a breach or compromise of Ring’s security” but were rather the result of people reusing compromised passwords that hackers exploited to gain access to Ring devices.
The hacks have led consumer groups to issue a product warning telling people not to buy the devices. Consumers in turn have filed multiple class action lawsuits against the company, saying negligence on Ring’s part led to hackers gaining access to their devices.
Ring has suggested that consumers use new passwords or enable two-factor authentication to prevent such hacks. While two-factor authentication is available on the devices — a process that would require users to provide an extra piece of information, like a passcode from their phones, in order to gain access to the cameras — Ring is not making it mandatory for existing users because the company said it would cause mass logouts. Two-factor authentication will now be the default for new users, who will have to opt out if they don’t want the service.
Ring has also unveiled a privacy dashboard that will go into effect later this month that makes it easier for users to control their security settings in one place. In the dashboard, users will now be able to see who is logged in and log them out.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who co-wrote a letter in November 2019 prior to the hacks asking Ring to detail its security measures, doesn’t believe the new measures go far enough.
Ring security could also be jeopardized from within. As part of the response to the senator, Ring stated that four employees had improperly accessed Ring doorbell footage and had since been terminated. Ring did not specify what sort of information they’d gotten or why.
More recently, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that the Ring Neighbors app sends personally identifiable information — including a unique identifier code, your mobile carrier, and your device’s IP address — to analytics and marketing companies as well as Facebook. It’s not clear what these third party trackers are doing with the information.
How Ring’s police partnerships work
As of the beginning of January, Ring has partnered with 770 police departments in the US (up from 400 in August 2019), and it’s continuing to expand this network. Amazon’s head of devices and services Dave Limp told Wired, “I’m proud of that program, and I think we’ll continue to do it. If anything we’re putting more resources on it.”
Partnerships give police a direct portal through which they can request video from Ring users in the event of an active nearby crime investigation. Ring users are not required to give video to police and their identities are kept secret, but Amazon has been coaching police on how to more successfully get video from Ring users without a warrant, according to Vice. CNET reported that for more than a year, ending in July 2019, Ring’s police partners had access to a map that could be zoomed in to street level of where Ring devices were installed, giving them a general idea of who might have a Ring, if not exact addresses.
Ring users who are victims of a crime, of course, may choose to share video with police of their own accord.
These partnerships also give police departments discounts on Ring products, which they can extend to their communities. While on the surface that could seem like a plus for citizens, it raises issues of competitive fairness and what role private companies should play in the public justice system.
CNET learned that Ring has worked with police to try to automatically activate nearby Ring video cameras in the event of a 911 call so that cops would, with user permission, be able to use the footage in ensuing investigations. The project isn’t currently being pursued. Gizmodo reported that what police departments disclose about their partnership with Ring is written or approved by Ring. Vice reported that partnerships require police departments to fill Ring-defined positions like a “Partnership Point of Contact” and “Community Relations Coordinator.”
Ring told us it doesn’t have any job requirements but that it requests people already in those positions to attend trainings. Critics note that all this effectively turns the police into the marketing arm of one of the most valuable companies in the world. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently put it, “This arrangement makes salespeople out of what should be impartial and trusted protectors of our civic society.”
Where facial recognition fits in
Ring has long told reporters that it doesn’t use facial recognition, but it has left open the possibility that it’s working on that technology for future implementation. The company has filed patents to that effect. And reporting from BuzzFeed News found that Ring’s Ukraine arm has been working on facial recognition technology and that it employs a “head of face recognition research.” The Intercept reported in November 2019 that Ring planned neighborhood “watch lists” that use facial recognition to alert Ring users when someone considered “suspicious” came into a Ring device’s view. Earlier in November, Amazon’s vice president of public policy Brian Huseman told Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that facial recognition capabilities in Ring devices were a “contemplated but unreleased feature.”
Most recently Ring told senators, “If our customers want these features in Ring security cameras, we will release these features only with thoughtful design including privacy, security, and user control, and we will clearly communicate with our customers as we offer new features.”
Ring’s competitor Nest, which is owned by Google, already uses facial recognition in some of its cameras.
Besides being just creepy, facial recognition technology has also proven faulty, especially when it comes to identifying nonwhite people. Research from MIT and the University of Toronto has shown that Amazon’s facial recognition technology frequently mistakes dark-skinned women for men, among other issues.
Amazon has also developed it own facial recognition tech, called Rekognition, which the company sells to law enforcement agencies — leading some activists to speculate that the tech may be introduced into Ring surveillance cameras. Ring told Recode that it doesn’t use Rekognition in its Ring products but declined to comment on whether it would do so in the future.
As Slate’s April Glaser pointed out, Amazon’s Rekognition proved too complicated a tool for strapped police departments with outdated computers to use. Distributing that workload — surveillance for now, but potentially facial recognition in the future — among consumers with Ring doorbells, however, seems to be a much more viable action.
For good or bad, Amazon is squarely in the public’s spotlight these days. While many people adore the convenience Amazon and its products offer, more and more they’re questioning the cost.