The Los Angeles Police Department has made numerous requests to owners of Amazon’s Ring surveillance cameras for footage capturing Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, according to documents published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on Tuesday.
Police surveilled last summer’s unrest in numerous ways, including flying a Predator drone. But this is the first time that police have been caught trying to use Ring footage to surveil those protests.
Ring has partnerships with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the U.S., and the LAPD officially signed on in 2019. Requests for footage come in the form of emails from the Ring team and typically contain important details like an investigator's name, the incident being investigated, as well as a time period they're interested in.
Emails obtained by EFF revealed that some surveillance footage requests were made through "Safe L.A. Task Force." The Safe L.A. Task Force was created in summer 2020 specifically to monitor protests and demonstrations against police violence. The FBI later joined the task force "in order to investigate significant crimes that occurred at or near locations where legitimate protests and demonstrations took place in Los Angeles beginning on May 29, 2020." The task force has previously posted photos and videos of protestors online on the LAPD’s website and YouTube in order to identify them with the public’s help. The request reads:
“The LAPD ‘Safe L.A. Task Force’ is asking for your help. During the recent protests, individuals were injured and property was looted, damaged, and destroyed. In an effort to identify those responsible, we are asking you to submit any video(s) you may have for [redacted].”
The LAPD received Ring footage on the day of the city’s largest protest, according to the EFF, and the next day the requesting officer’s unit was assigned to the protest task force.
When the EFF asked the LAPD about the task force’s collection of Ring surveillance footage, the LAPD downplayed concerns that it might be obtained or used in concerning ways.
“The SAFE LA Task Force used several methods in an attempt to identify those involved in criminal behavior. One of the methods was surveillance footage,” the LAPD told the EFF. “It is not uncommon for investigators to ask businesses or residents if they will voluntarily share their footage with them. Often, surveillance footage is the most valuable piece in an investigators case.”
The emails obtained by the EFF redacted important information about the requests for footage, raising concerns that "if police request hours of footage on either side of a specific incident, they may receive hours of people engaging in First Amendment protected activities with a vague hope that a camera may have captured illegal activity at some point." The redactions may also obscure "the amount of protest footage" LAPD was looking to capture, according to the EFF.
In a statement, Ring said that police can’t request surveillance video specifically for protesting, which is a legally-protected activity.
“Ring’s policy expressly prohibits Video Requests for lawful activities, such as protests, and requires that all Requests include a valid case number for an active investigation and incident details,” the company said in a statement to Motherboard. “This LAPD Video Request meets our guidelines, as it includes a case number and specifically states that the public safety enforcement user is requesting video to only identify individuals responsible for theft, property damage, and physical injury.”
Ring is far from the only source of surveillance video on the summer’s protest. In 2020, EFF revealed the San Francisco Police Department was using a network of over 400 surveillance cameras to spy on protests during the summer. A long stream of reporting has also confirmed that nationwide, police departments and federal authorities were using aerial surveillance to monitor protests and political activity during the summer—as they have been for decades.
Ring is a new and powerful extension of this surveillance apparatus. The search for Ring footage shows once again how a device supposedly meant to curb the theft of Amazon packages is just as easily used by the police to surveil protests against their own brutality. Since the LAPD became the 240th "public safety agency" to sign a partnership with Ring and its Neighbors app back in May 2019, well over 2,000 government agencies have joined the program and can use a custom portal for law enforcement to request footage.