Amazon’s Home Surveillance Chief Declared War on “Dirtbag Criminals” as Company Got Closer to Police

Video and internal emails show how Amazon’s Ring has blurred the line between private innovation and public law enforcement.

Illustration: Erik Blad for The Intercept

On March 17, 2016, Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff emailed out a company-wide declaration of war. The message, under the subject line “Going to war,” made two things clear to the home surveillance company’s hundreds of employees: Everyone was getting free camouflage-print T-shirts (“They look awesome,” assured Siminoff), and the company’s new mission was to use consumer electronics to fight crime. “We are going to war with anyone that wants to harm a neighborhood,” Siminoff wrote — and indeed Ring made it easier for police and worried neighbors to get their hands on footage from Ring home cameras. Internal documents and video reviewed by The Intercept show why this merging of private tech business and public law enforcement has troubling privacy implications.

This first declaration of startup militancy — which Siminoff would later refer to as “Ring War I” or simply “RW1” — would be followed by more, equally clumsy attempts at corporate galvanization, some aimed at competitors or lackluster customer support. But the RW1 email is striking in how baldly it lays out the priorities and values of Ring, a company now owned by Amazon and facing strident criticism over its mishandling of customer data, as previously reported by The Intercept and The Information.

Ring and Siminoff, who still leads the company, haven’t been shy about their focus on crime-fighting. In fact, Ring’s emphasis not only on personal peace of mind, but also active crime-fighting has been instrumental in differentiating its cloud-connected doorbell and household surveillance gear from those made by its competitors. Ring products come with access to a social app called Neighbors that allows customers to not just to keep tabs on their own property, but also to share information about suspicious-looking individuals and alleged criminality with the rest of the block. In other words, Ring’s cameras aren’t just for keeping tabs on your own stoop or garage — they work to create a private-sector security bubble around entire residential areas, a neighborhood watch for the era of the so-called smart home.

“Dirtbag criminals that steal our packages … your time is numbered.”

Forming decentralized 19th-century vigilance committees with 21st-century technology has been a toxic move, as shown by apps like Citizen, which encourages users to go out and personally document reported 911 calls, and Nextdoor, which tends to foster lively discussions about nonwhite people strolling through various suburbs. But Ring stands alone as a tech company for which hyperconnected vigilance isn’t just a byproduct, but the product itself — an avowed attempt to merge 24/7 video, ubiquitous computer sensors, and facial recognition, and deliver it to local police on a platter. It’s no surprise then that police departments from Bradenton, Florida, to Los Angeles have leapt to “partner” with Ring. Research showing that Ring’s claims of criminal deterrence are at the very least overblown don’t seem to have hampered sales or police enthusiasm for such partnerships.

But what does it mean when a wholly owned Amazon subsidiary teams up with local law enforcement? What kind of new creature is this, and what does it mean to live in its shadow? In a recent overview of Ring’s privacy risks, the Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler asked the company about its data-sharing relationship with police and was told, “Our customers are in control of who views their footage. Period. We do not have any plans to change this.” Fowler wrote: “But would Ring draw an ethical line at sharing footage directly with police, even if there was consent? It wouldn’t say.” The answer is that no such line, ethical or otherwise, exists.

A Ring video that appears to have been produced for police reveals that the company has gone out of its way to build a bespoke portal for law enforcement officers who want access to the enormous volume of residential surveillance footage generated by customers’ cameras. (The video was originally embedded here, but was replaced with screenshots after it was removed from the internet.)

Left/Top: Screenshot from an informational video about Ring’s police access portal showing how officers “are able to see all the crime related neighborhood alerts that are posted in their jurisdiction in real time.” Right/Bottom: Officers are able to read Ring owner comments about these crime-related posts. Screenshots: The Intercept

Left/Top: The “request videos” feature allows officers to view a map of available Ring cameras in an area or target a specific address and request footage directly from the owners, no court order required. Right/Bottom: The “manage videos” section allows officers to browse and view footage they’ve obtained from Ring users. Screenshots: The Intercept

The site, known as the Ring Neighborhoods Portal, is described in the video as a “community crime-fighting tool for law enforcement,” providing police with “all the crime-related neighborhood alerts that are posted within their jurisdiction, in real time.” Ring also allows police to monitor postings by users in the Neighbors app that are categorized as crime-related “neighborhood alerts” and to see the group conversations around those postings — a feature left unmentioned in Ring’s public descriptions of the software. “It’s like having thousands of eyes and ears on the street,” said the video. A Ring spokesperson clarified that police are not given the real names of users chatting through the Neighbors app.

Not only does this portal allow police to view Ring customers on a handy, Google-powered map, but it also makes requesting customer surveillance video a matter of several clicks. “Here, you can enter an address and time frame of interest and see a map of active cameras in your chosen area and time,” the narrator of the video said. Police can select the homes they’re interested in, and Ring takes it from there, creating an auto-generated form letter that prompts users to provide access to their footage. “No more going door to door to look for cameras and asking for footage,” the video said. A Ring spokesperson told The Intercept “When using the Neighbors portal, law enforcement officials see the same interface that all users see: the content is the same, the locations of posts are obfuscated, and no personal information is shared.” It’s unclear how placing Ring owners on a map is considered an obfuscation of their locations.

“Consent here is a smokescreen.”

Although Ring owners must opt in to the Neighbors program and appear free to deny law enforcement access to the cameras they own, the mere ability to ask introduces privacy and civil liberties quandaries that haven’t previously existed. In an interview with The Intercept, Matt Cagle, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said “the portal blurs the line between corporate and government surveillance,” making it unclear where the tech initiative ends and constitutional issues begin. With Ring marketing Neighbors as an attractive, brand-defining feature (“The Neighbors App is the new neighborhood watch that brings your community together to help create safer neighborhoods”), it’s not as if the company can treat this as some sort of little experimental pilot program. In response to a question about why the company doesn’t publicize the special enforcement portal on the Ring website, a spokesperson pointed to language on its website about how users can “get alerts from the Ring team and updates from local law enforcement, so you and your community can stay safe and in the know,” which makes no mention of the law enforcement portal or the access it permits. The spokesperson added that “Video Requests [from police] must include a case or incident number, a specific area of interest and must be confined to a specific time range and date” and that “users can choose to share some, none, or all of the videos, and can opt out of future requests.”

Even for those who’ve opted in to Neighbors, the power dynamics of receiving an unsolicited digital knock on the door from a local police officer muddies the nature of any consent a camera owner might provide through the portal, which Cagle believes gives law enforcement “coercive power over customers” by virtue of its design. “Many people are not going to feel like they have a choice when law enforcement asks for access to their footage,” said Cagle. Indeed, the auto-generated message shown in the Ring demo video contains essentially zero details about the request, beyond the fact that an officer is “investigating an incident that happened near you.” Imagine receiving a remote request from a police officer you’ve never met about a crime you know nothing about, all because you happened to buy a particular brand of doorbell and activated an app. Are you implicated in this “incident”? What happens if you refuse? Will you merely be a bad Ring Neighbor, or an uncooperative witness?

Consider as well the fact that Ring cameras are designed and sold to be placed not only outside you front door or garage, but inside your home too. What if a Ring owner provides footage from their camera to assist with a nearby “incident” that inadvertently reveals them smoking pot or violating their parole? When asked how people who live or pass by Ring cameras but are not Ring users can opt out of being recorded and having their image sent to police, the Ring spokesperson told The Intercept, “Our devices are not intended to be and should not be installed where the camera is recording someone else’s property without prior consent nor public areas.” It’s difficult if not impossible to reconcile this claim with the fact that Ring’s flagship product is a doorbell camera that points straight outward and captures anything or anyone who passes by a home’s entrance.

The video ends on an eerie note, adding that “in future versions we will also be enabling Ring’s smart search functionality that will allow for suspicious activity detection and person recognition.” What constitutes “suspicious activity” is anyone’s guess, as is how Ring will “detect” it. Given that the company still uses a team of clickers in the Ukraine to help tell the difference between cars and dogs, there’s little reason to have confidence in Ring’s ability to detect something worthy of suspicion, however it’s defined.

Even with the consent of owners, Cagle worries that the simple existence of a program like the Neighbors Portal threatens to blur, if not eliminate, the distinction between private-sector surveillance services and the government’s role as enforcer of the law. With regards to the latter, we have powerful constitutional safeguards, while with the former we have only terms of service and privacy policy agreements that no one reads. “Consent here is a smokescreen,” said Cagle. “Folks online consent to policies all the time without being meaningfully explained what is happening with our data, and the stakes are much higher here: Under guise of consent, this could invite needless surveillance of private lives.”

These possibilities don’t seem to have concerned Siminoff, whose giddiness about Ring’s future as a law enforcement asset is palpable throughout internal emails. Indeed, it’s clear that the anti-crime push wasn’t just an aspect of Ring according to its chief executive, but integral to its identity and fundamental to its company culture. In the March 2016 internal email, Siminoff added a special message to “the dirtbag criminals that steal our packages and rob our houses … your time is numbered because Ring is now officially declaring war on you!” In a November 2017 email announcing a third “Ring War” against alarm company ADT, Siminoff declared that Ring “will still become the largest security company in the world.” Another internal email from earlier in 2017 (subject: “Why We Are Here”) includes a message from Sgt. John Massi of the Philadelphia Police Department, thanking the company for its assistance with a recent string of thefts. “Wish I had some better wording for this,” wrote Siminoff, “but to put it bluntly, this is just FUCKING AWESOME!” In his message, Massi wrote that Ring’s “assistance allowed our detectives to secure an arrest & search warrant for our target, resulting in (7) counts of theft and related charges,” adding that the company “has demonstrated that they are a supportive partner in the fight against crime!”

The Intercept provided Ring with a list of detailed questions about the access it provides to police, but the company’s response left many of these unanswered. Ring did not address the consequences of bypassing the judicial system to obtain customer videos (albeit with consent), nor did the company answer how it defines or identifies “suspicious activity” or answer whether there are any guidelines in place regarding the handling or retention of customer videos by law enforcement. Without clear answers to these and other questions, Ring owners will simply have to trust Amazon and their local police to do the right thing.

Update, February 15: Ring’s video was replaced with screenshots after it was removed from the internet. Changed wording to make clear Ring (unlike some of its investors) is not physically based in Silicon Valley.

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