In a 2020 letter to management, Max Eliaser, a Amazon Software EngineerHe said Ring “is simply not compatible with a free society.” We should take his claim seriously.
Ring video doorbells, Amazon’s exclusive home security product, pose a serious threat to a free and democratic society. Not only is Ring’s surveillance network expanding rapidly, it is expanding the reach of law enforcement agencies to private property and expanding surveillance of everyday life. Additionally, once Ring users agree to surrender video content to law enforcement, there is no way to revoke access and there are few limitations on how that content can be used, stored, and with whom.
Ring is effectively building the largest civilian-installed and corporate-owned surveillance network the United States has ever seen. An estimate 440,000 Ring devices sold in December 2019 alone, and that was before the widespread boom in online retail sales during the pandemic. Amazon is cautious about how many Ring cameras are active at any given time, but Dear drawn from Amazon sales data, annual sales amount to hundreds of millions. The always-on video surveillance network is further extended when considering the million users on Ring-affiliated crime reporting app Neighbors, which allows people to upload content from Ring and non-Ring devices.
Then there’s this: Since Amazon bought Ring in 2018, it has traded over 1,800 associations with local law enforcement agencies, who can request recorded video content from Ring users without a court order. That is, in just three years, Ring connected about one in 10 police departments in the US with the ability to access the recorded content of millions of privately owned home security cameras. These associations is it so growing at an alarming rate.
Data I have collected Quarterly reported numbers from Ring show that over the past year through the end of April 2021, law enforcement agencies have made more than 22,000 individual requests to access content captured and recorded on Ring’s cameras. Ring’s cloud-based infrastructure (compatible with Amazon Web Services) makes it convenient for law enforcement to make mass requests for access to recordings without a court order. Because Ring cameras are owned by civilians, law enforcement agencies have back door access to private video recordings of individuals in residential and public spaces that would otherwise be protected by the fourth amendment. By partnering with Amazon, law enforcement circumvents these constitutional and legal protections, as pointed out attorney Yesenia Flores. In doing so, Ring blurs the line between police work and civil surveillance and turns his neighbor’s home security system into an informant. Except, unlike an informant, he’s always watching.
Ring’s ubiquitous camera network expands the daily preventive surveillance network, a network that watches over anyone who crosses its gaze, whether they are suspected of a crime or not. Although the net indiscriminately captures everyone, including children, there are glaring racial, gender and class inequalities when it comes to who is the target and labeled “out of place” in the residential space. Rahim Kurwa, professor of criminology, law and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, argues that neighborhood watch platforms like Neighbors perpetuate a much longer history of policing the race in the residential space.
The concerns of activists and academics have been compounded by developments in facial recognition technology and other forms of machine learning that could be applied to Ring’s recorded content and live broadcasts. Facial recognition technology has been denounced by AI researchers and civil rights groups for its racial Y gender biases. Although Ring does not currently use facial recognition on its cameras, Amazon has sold this technology to the police in the past. Following the pressure of AI researchers Y civil rights groups, Amazon placed a one year hiatus on police use of its controversial facial recognition technology, but this moratorium will expire in June.
While the pressure of civil rights groups Y legislators to end Ring partnerships With the police building being built, we need to demand more transparency and accountability from Amazon and law enforcement about what data is collected, with whom it is shared, and how it is used.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism