This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Ring, Amazon’s home surveillance company, has partnered with at least 225 law enforcement agencies around the country. As reported by Gizmodo, a crucial aspect of these partnerships is a PR arrangement: everything that police departments and individual officers say about Ring has to first be approved by Ring.
According to documents and emails obtained by Motherboard, Ring aims to control not just press releases and announcements, but statements designed to be spoken aloud and posted on social media platforms such as Neighbors, Ring’s “neighborhood watch” app.
Motherboard has obtained documents from the Topeka, KS police department showing that Ring made a spreadsheet with 46 standardized comments that cops can post on social media. A Ring spokesperson told Motherboard that the spreadsheet is intended to be reference material for police interacting with residents on Neighbors. The sample police comments encourage users to share camera footage with police, call and email police officers, and encourage friends to download Neighbors.
Some of the 46 standardized responses include:
- Good Afternoon, I’m sorry to see that you were victimized and that you have waited so long to hear back from a detective. Could you please email me your name, case number, and telephone number to [EMAIL]? I would like to reach out to my counterpart in the [DEPARTMENT] to check on the status of your case. In the meantime, we may also have someone visit your home to conduct a no-cost security survey, if you are interested.
- Can you share your video as well? If not on this forum you can send it to [EMAIL]
- Thank you everyone for your tips. A warrant has been issued for Bob Jones, 31 years of age, last known address in Los Angeles. If you know the whereabouts of Mr. Jones, please contact [NAME]. Thank you.
Several sample responses explicitly advertise Ring products:
“It is apparent that the [AGENCY] has partnered up with Ring to utilize their digital neighborhoods app, but, it should be noted that this app operates with any brand digital camera system that is able to upload video,” one sample response reads. “Ring does offer both the door bell and flood light options, however, my suggestion is to research camera devices that can accommodate your security needs.”
It is unclear whether, and to what extent, police departments are using Ring’s suggested response guide. In an email to Motherboard, a Topeka Police Department spokesperson said that the police department received the file from Ring, but said that it has “not used it as a guide” when interacting with residents on social media.
Motherboard also obtained a Reactive Q&A document with sample answers to questions cops might get from the community or the media, a Sample Social Media Posts document, and a Talking Points document that were provided from Ring to the police department of Maywood, NJ. The documents show how Ring instructs police to speak about the company not just in its press releases, but in one-on-one conversations with residents on social media or in real life.
These documents, which were mentioned and quoted in reporting by Gizmodo, show that the company takes an extremely hands-on role in controlling and facilitating all communications about the company. Without exception, all communications are designed to portray Ring and its products in a positive light that encourages camera purchases and app downloads.
Privacy advocates warn that these arrangements enlist police departments as a de facto extension of Ring’s corporate PR.
"The cozy relationship between Amazon and police revealed by these documents is extremely disturbing,” Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, said in an email. “Law enforcement is supposed to answer to elected officials and the public, not to public relations operatives from a profit-obsessed multinational corporation that has no ties to the community they claim they're protecting."
As reported by Wired last week, officers from the police department of Bloomfield, NJ were immediately called out and reprimanded when they broke the terms of this agreement and spoke about Ring without the company’s consent.
A Ring spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that the company offers "best practices" for law enforcement who want to post on Neighbors.
"We provide templates and educational materials for police departments to utilize at their discretion to help them keep their communities informed about their efforts on Neighbors," Ring spokesperson said. "We’ve seen many positive examples of Neighbors users and law enforcement engaging on the app and believe open communication is an important step in building safer, stronger communities. As we continue to develop our programs, privacy, security and user control will remain extremely important to us, and every decision we make as a company centers around these three pillars."
The document Motherboard obtained from the Topeka Police Department lists six categories of posts that residents could make on social media. A list of the categories and a brief description of each is given below:
- Read Receipt: Confirming that police saw a given post.
- Need Further Info: Asking for residents to email the police, call the police, or share footage with police on Neighbors or via email.
- Provide Service: Informing residents that police will respond to a post.
- Tips: Telling residents that they should call the police, animal control, or another relevant department regarding a post.
- Updates/Resolved: Providing updates on a police investigation, or informing residents that a suspect has been identified or arrested.
- Ring Info: Suggesting that people should refer their friends and family to the Neighbors or post more on Neighbors.
This document obtained from the Topeka Police Department is also viewable on Document Cloud.
The “Reactive Q&A” obtained by Motherboard was given to the police department of Maywood, NJ. The document includes sample answers that police can give to questions people might have about the partnership. One sample question is, “What is the partnership benefit?”
“The Neighbors app lets you easily share and communicate with your neighbors about crime and safety so you can have real-time, local crime data at your fingertips,” Ring instructs police to say. “The Neighbors app facilitates communication between neighbors, which is a crucial element of crime prevention.”
In response to, “How is Neighbors different from other platforms/apps?” Ring recommends that police say a list of bullet points that includes, “Neighbors features allows it to function as a true digital neighborhood watch.”
Neighbors, Ring’s free “neighborhood watch” app, has a notorious issue with racial profiling. Earlier this year, Motherboard documented every post on the app for three months in a 5-mile radius from our Williamsburg office. We found that the targets of “Suspicious” person posts on Neighbors are usually people of color.
According to a “Key Talking Points” document Motherboard obtained from the Maywood Police Department, local police are given a series of talking points designed to be used to guide social media posts and verbal communication about the partnership. The document notes that the Neighbors app is “not meant to replace 911.” Gizmodo reported that Ring takes real-time 911 call data in order to create “crime alerts” for the Neighbors app, curated by “news editors.”
“You do not need to own a Ring device or any other home security system in order to download and use the Neighbors app,” the document says. “Local residents are encouraged to download the free neighbors app in order to keep up with the real-time crime and safety updates and participate in the digital neighborhood watch straight from their smartphones.”
As pointed out by Gizmodo, the social media templates provided by Ring are often copied, pasted, and posted. Press releases also rely on Ring templates, according to an “Agency Press Release Template” obtained by Motherboard.
The “Agency Press Release Template,” obtained from the Maywood Police Department, is a nearly complete document with small fill-in-the-blanks left for police. For instance, “[Agency] quote” is at the beginning of one paragraph. The press release eventually released uses the exact template obtained by Motherboard.
Similarly, a “Sample Social Media Announcements” document obtained from the Maywood Police Department includes sample posts for Facebook, NextDoor, and Twitter announcing that the police department had joined Neighbors. Gizmodo published a sample of a nearly identical document last week. The document also includes sample images.
“Important: Be sure to include the Neighbors app download link and simple text codes info included below in all social media and other outreach materials involving the Neighbors app as a way to continuously drive app downloads and engagement,” the document says.
Yesterday, Motherboard reported that Ring coaches police on how to convince camera-owners to hand over footage to police. Owners need to give permission, but police don’t need a warrant.
Greer said that most forms of private surveillance costs police time and money because they have to get a court order before collecting private footage. Ring, meanwhile, allows police to request footage directly from camera owners.
“Amazon built an app for [requesting footage], making it exponentially easier for police to collect footage from exponentially more surveillance cameras blanketing our cities,” Greer said. “Since it costs them nothing to send a request for footage, there's nothing stopping police from doing this all the time, even for petty crimes. And once footage has been handed over to the cops, there's no limit on how long they can keep it or what they might do with it in the future."
All of the documents that informed this article are now public and viewable on Document Cloud.