We Asked Privacy Experts About Amazon and Ring’s Controversial Relationship With Law Enforcement
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Today, Ring is best known as the Amazon brand of smart video doorbells, but the company launched in 2012 as an independent security company that wanted to make home security more convenient and remotely accessible via your smartphone. They accomplished this task so successfully they were acquired by Amazon in February 2018 for more than $1 billion. Recently, however, Amazon’s in-house smart doorbell brand has come under fire for its relationship with law enforcement agencies.
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As a result, Ring has a controversial reputation among some privacy advocates, and the company has admitted to handing over user footage to law enforcement to aid with criminal investigations — without user consent.
Home delivery and package thefts are facts of life in 2022, thanks in large part to Amazon itself. As a result, a lot of homeowners are investing in smart security products to deter so-called porch pirates. SPY has reviewed all of the most popular video doorbells and home security cameras, including many Ring products. And because we often recommend Ring products to SPY readers, we wanted to understand what’s behind this controversy.
So what do current Ring owners need to know about the data being gathered on their devices, and how to protect it? Is Ring a valuable tool for protecting your home, or part of a growing surveillance state?
To find out, we asked the experts, including an Amazon Ring spokesperson, a cybersecurity expert at Harvard Law School and an investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit located in San Francisco. The good news? There are plenty of privacy settings you can employ to protect your data. And despite what you may have heard, Amazon has only released user footage without customer consent a handful of times, and only when “required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order, such as a search warrant.”
However, there’s still a lot you should know about the device guarding your home. This article aims to bring everything to light so you can make informed decisions regarding your Ring camera.
Here’s everything you need to know about Ring, user privacy and Amazon’s relationship with law enforcement.
Is Ring Handing User Footage Over to Law Enforcement?
First off, let’s establish why Ring has been in the news recently. In July 2022, Politico reported that Ring had handed over user footage to police without permission or notice to users 11 times in 2022.
That led to hundreds of headlines accusing Amazon of sharing customer data without consent and a general sense that the company was playing fast and loose with privacy. The Politico report on the controversy described Amazon as giving law enforcement “unfettered access…to doorsteps across the country.” However, considering how many millions of Ring products are in circulation, 11 is a very small number. Further, Amazon says this only occured in emergency situations.
An Amazon Ring spokesperson clarified with SPY that Ring only releases footage to law enforcement or other public safety agencies without user approval or notice “on an emergency basis when there is an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury, such as a kidnapping or an attempted murder. These emergency requests are reviewed by trained professionals on the legal team who disclose information only when that high bar is met.”
These requests can supercede the need for approval by a judge, like a search warrant or subpoena does, because they are deemed too timely to wait for that process. They are deemed that, to be clear, by an employee at Amazon. This revelation came out of letters from Amazon to Senator Ed Markey, which then sparked concerns of tech overreach. The revelations also came at a time when many people are extremely skeptical of both big tech and law enforcement in general. Likewise, Amazon is facing growing antitrust accusations with its ongoing domination of e-commerce.
The spokesperson went on to clarify, “Absent an exigent or emergency circumstance like this, Ring does not disclose customer information in response to government demands unless required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order, such as a search warrant. In these cases, unless prohibited from doing so or there is clear indication of illegal conduct in connection with the use of Ring products or services, Ring notifies customers before disclosing customer information.”
Senator Markey’s investigation also found that Ring currently works with more than 2,000 local law enforcement agencies and 455 fire departments as part of its Neighbors Public Safety Service (NPSS), a platform within the Ring app that allows users to share videos of suspicious activity with authorities. For people who are already distrustful of police, this program is seen as another strike against Ring, but critically, this footage is shared with the explicit permission of users, many of whom would happily cooperate with law enforcement to stop crimes in their neighborhood.
As a result of this investigation, Senator Markey sent a letter to Amazon asking them to eliminate the default setting of automatic audio recording upon motion detection, as well as to make end-to-end encryption the default storage option, as opposed to other alternatives, which would give users an additional safeguard against their data being used without their permission.
Amazon on Ring Privacy Options and User Data
What does Amazon have to say about Ring, the Neighbors platform and user footage? As in their letter to Senator Markey, Amazon has consistently said that user footage is only shared with law enforcement with user permission.
A source at Amazon who works with Ring told SPY that law enforcement agencies, unlike individual users, have public profiles on the Neighbors platform that anyone can access. These agencies can post “Requests for Assistance” as well as public safety messages regarding imminent community safety (like down power lines or wildfire information, for instance). Ultimately, users are in control of what footage they share.
“Customers are in control of their videos, and can elect whether they want to share videos in response to a Request for Assistance post on the Neighbors app,” said the source we spoke to.
The “Requests for Assistance” can be requests for specific information regarding a crime, and they are sent from an individual officer regarding an instance with an established case number, which users can look up. They are also limited to a certain location and certain times of day. Users can choose to release footage if they believe they have helpful information, or they can opt out of sending anything — or even block these requests within their Neighbors feed altogether.
Key Privacy Settings on Ring Devices
An Amazon Ring spokesperson clarified that Ring has put features “across all” of their devices that “ensure privacy, security, and user control remain front and center — including customizable Privacy Zones to block out “off-limit” areas, Motion Zones to control the areas customers want their Ring device to detect motion and Audio Toggle to turn audio on and off.”
Amazon also claims that Ring was “the first in our industry to implement mandatory Two-Step Verification for our customers, and were also the first in the smart home industry to launch video end-to-end encryption.”
What is End-to-End Encryption?
“With End-to-End Encryption, customer videos will be encrypted on the Ring camera, and the customer will be the only one with the special key (stored only on their mobile device) that can decrypt and view recordings,” according to an Amazon Ring spokesperson.
Requests for Assistance vs. Emergency Footage Release
The Amazon spokesperson emphasized the difference between instances in which users choose to release footage to help local law enforcement with criminal investigations and instances in which Amazon has responded to urgent requests for footage in situations of imminent danger, harm or injury.
“It’s important to note that Request for Assistance posts on Neighbors and legal requests are two completely different processes… Requests for Assistance are public posts made by public safety agencies on the Neighbors app asking for help from the community. It is entirely up to the Neighbors users if they want to respond to a Request for Assistance post.”
Security and Digital Freedom Experts on What Ring Owners Should Know
Timothy H. Edgar is a former national security and intelligence official as well as a privacy lawyer, cybersecurity expert and civil liberties activist. He’s done work with the ACLU, is a senior fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and is on the advisory board of Virtu, a software company that offers encryption to businesses and individuals.
Edgar has written extensively on issues related to data privacy and security for outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Wired, and spoke with SPY via email about what Ring owners need to know regarding their data and smart home devices.
Owning a Ring Camera Isn’t an Individual Decision
He explained that while buying a Ring camera may seem like an individual decision, it’s actually a decision that has an impact beyond your immediate home, into your larger community by adding yet another tracking device to the area.
“Buying a Ring camera is more than an individual decision because every purchase moves us one step closer towards becoming a surveillance society. Buying a Ring camera has a big impact on the civil liberties and privacy of all of us, including those who don’t buy these cameras,” said Edgar.
Ring cameras do film strangers and passersby to your house without their permission. It’s easy to see why privacy advocates have concerns, especially when you think about the sheer number of Ring devices on any given street.
It’s Important To Know The Extent of Ring’s Digital Capabilities
Beryl Lipton, an Investigative Researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit out of San Francisco focused on defending digital privacy, noted that Ring cameras don’t just capture video with precision, they also capture audio, a default feature users can turn off in the settings if they choose to.
“Ring, with its security flaws and its ability to persistently record and store the goings-on of homes and neighborhoods, has had a history of incidents facilitating invasions of privacy by unintended actors and by third-party trackers,” said Lipton.
“In addition to its video-recording capabilities, Ring video doorbells also have the ability to capture audio from up to 25-feet away. Imagine having a conversation while walking down the street and having a record, complete with audio, captured and held for months,” said Lipton. This fact was verified by an investigation conducted by Consumer Reports, which found that Ring devices can record audio up to 30 feet away in the right conditions.
“Given the growing integration of biometric elements, like face recognition, into surveillance technology, as well as incredible data storage capabilities, Ring has created a network of cameras for vast monitoring of neighborhoods,” Lipton told SPY.
What To Do If You Think Your Ring Camera Has Witnessed a Crime
Lipton encourages thoughtfulness when turning footage over to authorities, and asking yourself certain questions before you hand over information.
“If a Ring camera captures possibly criminal behavior, owners may want to turn over data to police, but they should ask questions like, ‘Am I sure this is a crime?’ and, ‘What’s the chance that this video might misidentify someone?’ said Edgar.
Data is power in our society, especially when it comes to footage captured of strangers. Video can starkly portray a criminal caught in the act with the right angle, but it can be deceptive, and potentially reinforce racial stereotyping and harmful assumption when it doesn’t capture the whole story.
If you believe your footage will aid law enforcement in a criminal investigation and wish to turn it over, you can do so in the Neighbors app through Ring, or contact your local law enforcement agency directly.
What Ring Owners Can Do to Protect Their Privacy
Should users trust Amazon with thousands of hours of footage of their property, neighborhood conversations and community interactions all captured on video? It’s most likely healthy to approach that data gathering with some skepticism regarding where it’s stored and who has access to it.
As with any device purchase, app download or website cookies agreement, it is up to the user to educate themselves about what their rights are, where their data is going and who is allowed access to it. If after reading this piece you’ve decided against owning a Ring device, that’s your prerogative. If you currently own a device and are looking for ways to safeguard your data and all the settings you can employ to keep footage as close to the belt as possible, keep reading.
1. Tally How Many Devices You Have in Your Home
Liption noted that Ring’s controversies are not an isolated incident, and it’s crucial to take account of all the devices you have in your home.
“Everytime a piece of technology is brought into the home that is connected to the internet, to other devices, or to networks outside the home, there are concerns related to security and privacy,” said Lipton.
“Consumers will need to get used to considering their security, the risks involved, and the consequences for their communities.”
2. Make Sure All Your Device’s Settings Are Turned On Or Off, Depending On Your Preferences
Ring cameras do come with settings you can adjust based on your preferences, including opting for end-to-end encryption. Here are a few settings to consider adjusting, with help from Lipton and the EFF, to make your Ring data more secure:
Enable end-to-end encryption, which means your footage is only available on your device and those imminent requests from law enforcement will have to go through you, rather than Amazon, as well as any subpoenas or warrants for footage
Set up a strong password and two-factor authentication
Only aim your Ring camera at your property, and turn off default audio recording with motion detection
Use strong passwords, change any default username or password settings and set accounts using a strong password
Delete footage as often as you can, and take steps to limit third-party trackers
3. Check Local Privacy Laws
Check your local state privacy laws, and adjust your settings related to audio or video, either through turning off audio or establishing privacy zones, based on them
“If you have a Ring camera or similar device, you should be careful of how you use footage — or even whether you install such a device in the first place. Some states have surveillance laws that require two-party consent, and while these laws typically apply to audio recordings and not video recordings, some privacy groups have been pushing to broaden them,” said Edgar.
“Even if your state allows recording, people who are recorded may have a legal case for infringement of privacy depending on the circumstances in which their images were captured or disseminated.”
Editor’s Note: As an e-commerce publication, SPY works with the Amazon Associates program, which means we may earn a commission on Amazon products bought through our links.
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