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Amazon-Owned ‘Ring’ Sets Off Privacy Alarms

Amazon’s ownership of home-security company Ring is making headlines because of the partnership formed by the company with police departments all over the country.

Ring, which produces a “doorbell” installed outside a house with a hidden camera, declined to reveal how many police departments it is now connected to, but according to a police memo obtained by Gizmodo dated April 22, 2019, “…‘over 225 law enforcement agencies’ are engaged in partnerships with Ring.”

The ramifications of this connection are raising concerns, as such partnerships don’t stop with law enforcement being able to use surveillance cameras as “portals” to acquiring video footage. Homeowners are currently asked permission for the cameras outside of their home to connect with local police.

Just how long the police would be able to observe what’s going on, and whether police could work with Amazon to gain access if an owner’s permission is denied are pressing questions.

In addition, the line between law enforcement and commercial endorsement is getting blurry.

Detailed scripts from Amazon obtained by Motherboard, VICE New’s Tech section, urge police officers from Topeka, Ks., to advertise Ring, and suggest that people refer their friends, families, and neighbors to install the cameras, VICE News reports.

One of the messages suggests cops say, “Please spread the word! Joining the app is absolutely FREE by texting [TEXT CODE] 555888.” This makes police officers seem more like company advertisers.

The full “suggested response guide” obtained from the Topeka Police Department is also viewable on Document Cloud, via VICE News.

As an incentive for promoting Ring products, the company grants police departments access to Ring’s new “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal.” This online database acts like an “interactive map that shows the approximate location of every Ring product in a given area.”

Police can then request footage directly from Ring camera owners without a warrant. Even if owners deny giving them access, there’s another way to see their footage.

Police can still request Ring camera footage directly from Amazon, regardless “if a Ring customer denies to provide police with the footage.” This acts almost like a loophole that allows police departments to essentially “subpoena” anything captured on Ring cameras, GovTech reported.

Each communication suggestion was created to portray Amazon’s Ring and subsequent apps in a positive manner that encourages more camera purchases and downloads.

Privacy advocates are concerned that these partnerships with big companies and local police departments enlist them as “a de facto extension of Ring’s corporate PR.”

In an email to VICE News, Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, called their partnership “disturbing” and continued, “Law enforcement is supposed to answer to elected officials and the public, not to public relations operatives from a profit-obsessed multinational corporation that has no ties to the community they claim they’re protecting.”

A startling discovery by Motherboard obtained from the Maywood, N.J., police department included “‘Sample Social Media Announcements’ for Facebook, NextDoor, and Twitter announcing that the police department had joined Neighbors.”

The document reminds police departments to advertise Ring, saying, “Important: Be sure to include the Neighbors app download link and simple text codes info included below in all social media and other outreach materials involving the Neighbors app as a way to continuously drive app downloads and engagement.”

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.