Civil Rights Groups Demand Congress Investigate Amazon’s 'Surveillance Empire'

The campaign to pressure consumers and lawmakers to take action arrives after five U.S. senators sent a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding answers about how the tech giant uses its surveillance data.
Civil Rights Groups Demand Congress Investigate Amazon’s 'Surveillance Empire'
Image: Flickr/Dick Thompson

Fifteen civil rights groups launched a major campaign on Monday calling on Congress to investigate how Amazon and its home surveillance company Ring violate civil liberties, particularly through partnerships with law enforcement.

Last week, senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ed Markey (D-MA), Gary Peters (D-MI), and Chris Coons (D-DE) wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos questioning how Amazon protects Ring’s security data and whether its surveillance system can be hacked by foreign governments or other third parties. The senators’ letter was a response to Senator Markey’s recent inquiry into how Amazon protects data collected from Ring’s electronic doorbells. Last week, Markey published the inquiry's findings—which included, for example, that Ring has no policies about how long police can keep footage—expressing strong concern that "Amazon Ring's policies are an open door for privacy and civil liberty violations."


Now, civil rights groups (including Fight for the Future, Media Justice, Color of Change, CREDO Action, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations-SFBA) are insisting that Congress launch a deeper investigation. This week, the groups will use their networks to call and email legislators highlighting the dangers that Ring’s partnerships with over 400 police departments in the United States pose to black and brown communities vulnerable to surveillance.

Part of the campaign's intention is to have consumers think twice before they purchase Ring products during the holidays, said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future.

“During this holiday season, people are going to buy Amazon’s product unaware of the surveillance features and the threats they pose to their personal data and civil liberties,” Greer said. “At this point, lawmakers need to escalate the investigation and hold hearings demanding answers and accountability from Amazon when it comes to their surveillance empire and monopolistic business practices.”

As reported by Motherboard, racial profiling is prevalent on Ring’s neighborhood watch app Neighbors. Our investigation of user-submitted posts within a five mile radius of the VICE’s Brooklyn offices found that the overwhelming majority of people reported as “suspicious” were people of color. Ring also tells police how to convince people to share their camera footage with police departments.

Beyond Ring’s warrantless mass surveillance of millions of American homes and neighborhoods, the organizations demanding an investigation are concerned about how Amazon’s Alexa records conversations, and how the company’s facial recognition technology identifies and tracks the movements of people in vulnerable communities.

“Amazon’s ever-expanding surveillance empire threatens our privacy and civil liberties, especially in brown and black communities already vulnerable to racial profiling and heightened surveillance,” the groups say.

"Amazon devices are in our homes listening to our most intimate conversations and affixed to front doors where they create an in-real-time record of all that happens in our neighborhoods," said CAIR National Senior Litigation Attorney Gadeir Abbas. "This pervasiveness, combined with Amazon's privacy-averse disposition, creates an unprecedented threat to the civil liberties of all Americans."

Amazon and Ring did not immediately respond to a request for comment.