Ring, Amazon’s home security company most known for its doorbell camera, has been quietly creating a massive private surveillance network. The company has formed partnerships with at least 225 law enforcement agencies, enticed cities to finance discounts on its cameras with taxpayer money, and worked with police to organise package theft sting operations in several US cities.
Motherboard has spent the last couple of months digging into Ring and its influence across the country. Our reporting has been informed by more than 1,400 pages of emails, contracts, and presentations sent between Ring, law enforcement, and government workers in cities around the country. We've published articles about these documents as we've received them, and we are still gathering a full picture of Ring's partnerships with government and law enforcement. But with each story, that picture is getting clearer.
To help explain what we've learned so far, we’ve compiled a list of basic questions readers might have about Ring. In our answers, we’ve linked out to coverage which readers can visit for more in-depth information. Motherboard will update this article periodically as it continues to report about the company.
1. What is Ring?
Ring is a home security company that was acquired by Amazon in April 2018 for about $839 million. Ring sells a variety of Wi-Fi-enabled surveillance cameras designed to be placed both inside and outside of homes.
The doorbell camera, Ring’s cheapest camera model, usually sells for about £180 on Amazon. But Ring also sells floodlight cameras, “Stick Up” cameras that can bind to indoor or outdoor surfaces, and solar panels that can recharge camera batteries. All of Ring’s cameras are internet-connected, meaning owners can view live camera footage on their phones or smart devices whether or not they’re home. Ring owners in the US can also pay $3 to $10 per month to save all of their camera footage for 60 days.
Ring’s founder Jamie Siminoff pitched the company, then called “DoorBot,” on the entrepreneur TV show Shark Tank in 2013. All of the show’s investors (called “sharks” on the show) declined to invest. Siminoff came back on Shark Tank as a shark six months after Ring was acquired by Amazon.
2. What is Neighbors?
Neighbors is Ring’s “neighbourhood watch” app. It launched in May 2018, one month after Amazon acquired Ring.
The app is comparable to NextDoor, but unlike NextDoor, all posts on Neighbors are about crime and suspicion of crime. Also, people with Ring doorbell cameras can share footage from their cameras directly to the app. A Neighbors post can be tagged in one of five categories: Crime, Safety, Suspicious, Unknown Visitor, or Lost Pet.
As reported by Motherboard, racial profiling is prevalent on Neighbors. Motherboard individually documented every user-submitted posts in the Neighbors app between the 6th of December and the 5th of February, placing the “home” address at the VICE offices in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and keeping the default 5-mile neighbourhood radius. We found that the vast majority of people reported as “Suspicious” were people of colour.
Neighbors also has “News Teams” for certain cities, as reported by Motherboard, which are Amazon/Ring employees who write and post news alerts about reported crimes. As reported by Gizmodo, News Teams have access to real-time 911 data in certain cities. This 911 data is used to craft news alerts.
3. What are Ring “partnerships” with police?
Ring has entered secret partnerships with police departments across the US. Signed contracts typically require police to keep the terms of their partnership with Ring “confidential.”
These partnerships involve an exchange:
Law enforcement gets access to Ring’s “Law Enforcement Neighbourhoods Portal.” The portal is an interactive map that shows the approximate location of all Ring devices in a given area. Police can then request footage from camera owners directly from the portal. They don’t need a warrant to request this footage, but camera owners have to give police permission to view their footage. As reported by Motherboard, Ring coaches police on how to convince people to give their camera footage to police.
Ring gets to have its cameras and Neighbors app advertised and promoted by local police. This can happen in one of two ways:
A) Explicit Promotion: Some police departments – like the police department of Lakeland, FL – sign partnership agreements that require them to "Engage the Lakeland community with outreach efforts on the platform to encourage adoption of the platform/app.” These departments typically get free Ring cameras that they can distribute to residents. (The Lakeland Police Department, for example, got 15 cameras.)
Some police departments have done raffles and giveaways to facilitate distribution of the cameras. The Lakeland Police Department also got access to an incentive program to get more Ring cameras: for every Lakeland resident that downloaded Neighbors using a partnership-specific promo code, the police department earned a $10 credit toward more getting more free Ring cameras for residents. We don't know exactly how many police departments Ring have this arrangement.
B) Implicit Promotion: Other police departments aren’t contractually obligated to “encourage adoption” of Ring products. But in practice, they do have to promote Ring products. Police have to get all public statements about Ring approved by the company first. Ring-approved press releases and social media posts typically include a download link for the Neighbors app. Police are also given a series of scripts by Ring which dictate how police are supposed to talk about the company on Neighbors. These scripts include lines where police encourage residents to refer their friends and family to Neighbors.
4. How many police partnerships are there?
Ring appears to have partnered with at least 225 law enforcement agencies, which include local and county police departments.
Motherboard acquired notes that a police officer took during a Ring webinar in April, designed to train police on how to use the Law Enforcement Neighbourhoods Portal. The notes show that Ring told police it has partnered with 200 law enforcement agencies. Gizmodo obtained notes from late April stating that Ring has partnered with 225 law enforcement agencies.
This number has probably grown since April, because Motherboard has acquired contracts between police departments and Ring that are dated after April.
5. What are Ring “discount programs”?
Discount programs involve cities and towns paying Ring up to $100,000 in taxpayer money in order to subsidise Ring camera purchases for its residents, as reported by Motherboard. Ring will match every dollar committed by a city, per the terms of these discount programs. This means that for every $100 residents save when buying a Ring product, the city pays $50 and Ring pays $50.
Motherboard identified 14 American cities, as well as one city in the United Kingdom, that have had these discount programs. California cities like La Mirada and Alhambra allotted $10,000 in taxpayer money toward these discount programs. Maywood and Temple City paid $20,000. Arcadia, CA has paid $50,000 toward Ring discount programs since 2017, and La Cañada Flintridge has paid at least $44,750. In 2017, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA paid $100,000 for a Ring discount program.
In order to implement these discount programs, some cities will offer promotion codes that residents can enter at an online Ring check-out. Other cities will host in-person events, usually at shopping centers or community centers, where residents can buy discounted Ring products. Sometimes, local police will help organise these in-person events.
6. How are these discount programs different from police partnerships?
Discount programs differ from police partnerships in three main ways:
- The Parties Involved: Police partnerships are between Ring and police. Discount programs are between Ring and a city.
- The Contracts: Police partnerships involve police signing a “Memorandum of Understanding.” Discount programs involve mayors or city council members singing a “Promotional Discount Agreement.”
- How They Work: Police partnerships give police access to the Law Enforcement Neighbourhoods Portal, and also let Ring get explicit and implicit promotion by police. Discount programs, meanwhile, involve cities directing taxpayer money so that residents can get $100+ discounts on Ring products. They also require cities to prominently promote and advertise these discounts.
7. What are these package “sting operations” that Ring has helped organise?
Ring and Amazon have helped local police around the country set up package theft sting operations – which involve creating dummy Amazon packages (using tape and boxes provided by Amazon) and putting these packages on doorsteps equipped with doorbell cameras. An explicit goal of these operations is to catch someone stealing a package on a Ring doorbell camera and arrest them, according to documents obtained Motherboard.
These stings have occurred in Hayward, CA; Aurora, CO; Albuquerque, NM; Green Bay, WI; and Jersey City, NJ. Motherboard has obtained documents regarding these operations from Hayward, Aurora, and Albuquerque.
Police “assigned [an] undercover vehicle for surveillance and covert operations” in Hayward, CA as a part of the sting operation, according to documents obtained Motherboard. Amazon also created package loss “heat maps” for the Albuquerque Police Department in order to help police plan the operation, per documents obtained Motherboard. These operations have not resulted in any publicly known arrests, as highlighted by documents obtained from Albuquerque.
8. Should Ring owners be concerned about their privacy?
Short answer, yes. As reported by The Intercept and The Information, live footage from Ring cameras is accessible at any moment by company employees, who are mostly based in Ukraine. Additionally, all Ring owners are engaging in de facto beta testing for Ring’s facial, object, and voice recognition systems – often unknowingly.
According to Ring’s Terms of Service, “by purchasing or using” Ring products and services, you give Ring the right “to access and use your User Recordings” for “developing new Products and Services.”
Also, anyone who approaches or walks by a Ring camera is filmed, since the camera is motion-activated. That footage can be saved, shared on Neighbors, and in some cases, it could be shared with police.
So in essence, when someone buys a Ring camera, they aren’t just consenting to self-surveillance. They’re consenting to surveillance on behalf of anyone that walks by, toward, or into their home.
9. Does Ring have facial recognition?
As reported by The Intercept, Ring is currently developing in-house facial recognition software. (This software is not the same as Rekognition, Amazon’s notoriously inaccurate facial recognition tool that is in use by some police departments.)
To the best of our knowledge, police don’t currently have access to Ring’s still-in-development facial recognition system. However, theoretically, police could combine Ring footage they obtain with their own facial recognition tools. In other words, facial recognition could be applied to Ring footage that’s shared with police.
(Some police departments have access to their own facial recognition technology. Other police departments have access to it through Department of Homeland Security-funded “fusion centers,” which can provide investigative resources to local police.)
10. I’m concerned about Ring’s partnerships with police. What can I do?
Fight for the Future, a digital rights activist group, recently launched a campaign to help people demand that their local governments and police departments to stop partnerships with Ring. People can sign a petition which calls on their local mayor and city council representatives to forbid police from entering into partnerships with Ring, or to end existing Ring partnerships.
Got a tip about Ring discount programs, police partnerships, or something else? We'd love to hear from you. You can contact Caroline Haskins securely on Signal on +1 (785) 813-1084, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.