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Amazon Is Coaching Cops on How to Obtain Surveillance Footage Without a Warrant

Ring, Amazon’s home surveillance company, is teaching police how to convince residents to share camera footage with them.

by Caroline Haskins
Aug 5 2019, 5:08pm

Image: Collage by Hunter French | Photos via Wikimedia Commons and Shutterstock 

When police partner with Ring, Amazon’s home surveillance camera company, they get access to the “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal,” an interactive map that allows officers to request footage directly from camera owners. Police don’t need a warrant to request this footage, but they do need permission from camera owners.

Emails and documents obtained by Motherboard reveal that people aren’t always willing to provide police with their Ring camera footage. However, Ring works with law enforcement and gives them advice on how to persuade people to give them footage.

Emails obtained from police department in Maywood, NJ—and emails from the police department of Bloomfield, NJ, which were also posted by Wired—show that Ring coaches police on how to obtain footage. The company provides cops with templates for requesting footage, which they do not need a court warrant to do. Ring suggests cops post often on Neighbors, Ring’s free “neighborhood watch” app, where Ring camera owners have the option of sharing their camera footage.

"I have noticed you have been posting alerts and receiving feedback from the community,” a Ring representative told Bloomfield police. “You are doing a great job interacting with them and that will be critical in increasing the opt-in rate.”

“The more users you have, the more useful the information you can collect,” the representative added.

“Seems like you wasted no time sending out your video Request out to Ring Users which is awesome!!” a Ring “Partner Success Associate” told Maywood police.

As reported by GovTech on Friday, police can request Ring camera footage directly from Amazon, even if a Ring customer denies to provide police with the footage. It's a workaround that allows police to essentially "subpoena" anything captured on Ring cameras.

"Ring will not release customer information in response to government demands without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us," a Ring spokesperson told Motherboard in an email. "Ring objects to over-broad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course. We are working with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office to ensure this is understood."

Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College who studies digital redlining and discriminatory practices enabled by data mining, said in a phone call that Amazon is essentially coaching police on 1) how to do their jobs, and 2) how to promote Ring products.

“Not coincidentally, those things overlapped quite a bit,” Gilliard said. “That’s really disturbing.”

Ring, in essence, recommends that police create a feedback loop in which they depend on Ring. According to Ring, police should:

  1. Post on their department's Twitter and Facebook pages to encourage Neighbors downloads.
  2. Use Neighbors downloads as “credits” to get free Ring cameras.
  3. Increase the amount of video surveillance in their communities.
  4. Use the Law Enforcement Neighborhoods Portal to request surveillance footage.

Motherboard previously reported that at least 200 law enforcement agencies have partnered with Ring. Gizmodo reported that the number of partnerships is at least 225.

"Ring offers Neighbors app trainings and best practices for posting and engaging with app users for all law enforcement agencies utilizing the portal tool," A Ring spokesperson told Motherboard in an email. "We also 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 requests to look at press releases and any messaging prior to distribution to ensure our company and our products and services are accurately represented."

A Ring representative emailed three Bloomfield police officers on May 1 asking whether they needed help using the Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal.

“Keep up the great job commenting and posting!” the representative said.

On May 31, the Bloomfield Detective Bureau Commander asked how the police department can encourage more people to submit Ring camera footage.

“I have been requesting videos but have not been getting any responses,” the detective wrote. “The only video that we have received is from a person that we directly spoke to and asked him to send it to us. [Is] there anything that we can blast out to encourage Ring owners to share the videos when requested?”

The Ring representative said that the cities with the best “opt in rate” for sharing Ring footage with police are active on social media.

“The agencies with the best opt in rate are the ones that are actively sharing on social media, having community outreach speak at meetings and spread via word of mouth,” the representative said.

Emails from the Bloomfield, NJ police department obtained by Motherboard. Email addresses redacted by Motherboard.
Image: Emails from the Bloomfield, NJ police department obtained by Motherboard. Email addresses redacted by Motherboard.

A Ring Partner Success Associate told an officer from the Maywood Police Department something similar in April, according to emails obtained by Motherboard. The Ring employee advised them to pair all video requests through the Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal with a public post on the Neighbors app.

A Neighbors post, the Ring employee said, will contextualize video requests and reach people who may not have Ring cameras, but have information relevant to law enforcement.

The Ring Partner Success Associate also provided Maywood Police with a sample Neighbors post.

Emails from the Bloomfield, NJ police department obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Emails from the Bloomfield, NJ police department obtained by Motherboard. Email addresses and phone numbers redacted by Motherboard.

However, posting on social media isn’t just a way for law enforcement to get information for investigations. According to Ring, it’s also a way for police to drive Neighbors downloads in their communities. A Ring “Best Practices” guide obtained by Motherboard from the Addison, IL police department explicitly says as much on a page titled “Driving Neighbors App Downloads.”

“Grow your audience to create a bigger impact when posting Portal Alerts,” the document says. “Social Media is the most effective way to drive Neighbors App downloads.”

Ring “Best Practices” document obtained by Motherboard from Addison, IL.
Image: Ring “Best Practices” document obtained by Motherboard from Addison, IL.

Although Neighbors is a free app, its posts are dominated by video footage captured by Ring cameras. The app is a de facto advertisement for Ring security cameras: it shows users what and who they should be scared of, and it suggests that Ring cameras are the solution to this fear. Neighbors has hired “news editors” to pull 911 call data into the app for real-time, unconfirmed crime alerts, as reported by Gizmodo. As Motherboard reported earlier this year, the app also has a major problem with racial profiling.

Fight for the Future recently called for cities around the country to stop partnering with Ring. The digital rights activist group claims that Ring is creating a dragnet surveillance program in the private sphere, without proper regulatory oversight.

“Some of the advice he gave I think are things that community activists would recommend—that police need to build relationships in communities to be more effective,” Gilliard told Motherboard. “The idea that it should be mediated through Amazon and through social media—it brings with it all the problems that we know with social media.”

“It’s blurring of the line between consumer and citizen,” Gilliard added. “That’s not in the best interest of citizens, because it means that you will only get your rights as much as you use a particular service.”

All of the documents that informed this article are now public and viewable on Document Cloud.

Update August 6: This article has been updated to include additional comment from Ring.

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