Despite years of criticism, Amazon’s Ring cameras are increasingly ubiquitous in American neighborhoods, an always-watching symbol of residential suspicion, and the company’s privatized surveillance dragnet remains wildly popular with police. In a new letter to Amazon CEO Andrew Jassy, Sen. Edward Markey is calling on the company to implement pro-privacy reforms and limit its collaboration with police.
Ring’s nationwide network of house-mounted cameras provide police with millions of potential audiovisual feeds from which they can request data with an easy series of clicks, and the company has gone to great lengths to foster this symbiotic relationship between camera owner and law enforcement, formally partnering with hundreds of departments, running promotional giveaways, and offering cops special product discounts. Although Ring has adopted some limited reforms in response to prolonged scrutiny — for instance, ceasing direct donations of cash and cameras to police — the company’s 10 million customers provide a steady current of data that police can request, sans warrant or meaningful oversight, directly from the user.
Although it helps police the general public, Ring’s inner workings are about as opaque as any other private firm, and much remains unknown about the company’s ongoing relationship with police or plans to bolster their powers in the future. In the letter, a copy of which was shared with The Intercept, Markey asks Amazon to disclose some of the many open questions about its surveillance subsidiary and to commit to a series of further reforms. The letter is only the latest correspondence between Markey and Ring, part of a multiyear effort to pry information out of the generally secretive company. “While I acknowledge and appreciate steps Ring has taken in response to my previous letters to your company,” the letter reads, “I remain troubled by your company’s invasive data collection and problematic engagement with police departments.”
“[T]he public’s right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk.”
The letter emphasizes concern over the fact that Ring cameras not only continuously record video data but also audio: “As Ring products capture significant amounts of audio on private and public property adjacent to dwellings with Ring doorbells — including recordings of conversations that people reasonably expect to be private — the public’s right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk.” In the letter, Markey asks Ring to disclose the precise distance at which its devices are capable of recording audio, “commit to eliminating Ring doorbells’ default setting of automatically recording audio when video is recorded, and “commit to never incorporating voice recognition technology into its products.” Markey also asked Ring for pledges to “never accept financial contributions from policing agencies,” “never allow immigration enforcement agencies to request Ring recordings,” and “never participate in police sting operations.”
In addition, Markey wants Ring to clarify some of its vague, legalese policy language. For instance, the company claims it will always require a court order to disclose “customer information” without that customer’s permission first, unless there is an “an exigent or emergency” situation, a murky term the company leaves undefined and thus means potentially anything at all. Markey is now pushing for a definition of “exigent or emergency,” along with a disclosure of how many times Ring has granted access to data under such circumstances.
While Markey’s proposals, if implemented, would place some limits on the ability of police to monitor the public through entirely private means, a larger issue will remain: There are millions of these cameras already in place, capturing round-the-clock footage of people who’ve committed no offense other than walking down the street and beaming it directly to a company that has zero accountability to the public. Whatever voluntary measures Ring may choose to adopt following pressure from Markey or other surveillance critics, short of legislative guardrails, they will remain voluntary.
Still, Markey is optimistic about his missive campaign and expressed a broader concern over these problems inherent to the age of the ubiquitous doorbell camera: “I’m pleased that my efforts to hold Ring accountable and demand answers for its invasive practices have brought about real change in how Amazon does business, because the stakes are high,” he wrote in a statement to The Intercept. “As surveillance technologies proliferate, our ability to move, congregate and converse in public without being tracked is at risk of slipping away. The threats are particularly high for Black and Brown communities who have long been subjected to over-policing and higher levels of surveillance. Ring has taken steps in the right direction, but I remain deeply concerned about the ways in which privacy invasions have become the new normal in our country.”