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Amazon Provided Police with 'Heat Maps' of Package Theft for Sting Operation

Amazon created package loss data heat maps and performed “data analysis” that helped a police department plan and carry out a package theft sting operation.

by Caroline Haskins
Jul 9 2019, 3:11pm

Image: Cop from pxhere, Amazon logo from Wikimedia Commons

Amazon creates zip code-specific "heat maps" that show where the company has lost packages, and in at least one case, Amazon used these heat maps to help police plan a package theft sting operation.

Amazon is, in some cases, performing "data analysis" to be shared with the police, and is working much more closely with police than it has previously admitted, emails obtained by Motherboard show. In December, the company shared 60-day and 12-month package loss heat maps with the Albuquerque, New Mexico police department to help it plan a package theft sting operation. The operation involved leaving dummy Amazon boxes rigged with GPS trackers on doorsteps equipped with Amazon-owned Ring doorbell cameras, which were provided to police. The goal is to catch someone attempting to steal a package on a Ring doorbell camera and arrest them.

“I hope the operation nets a lot of bad guys!” an Amazon Global Investigations Manager said in an email to two of his colleagues and an Albuquerque Police Department lieutenant.

In emails and statements to Motherboard, Amazon has insisted that the extent of its role in these sting operations was providing company packages, tape, and lithium ion stickers, and that it did not provide any operational assistance in these operations. Emails obtained using a freedom of information request from the Albuquerque Police Department directly contradict Amazon’s previous statements.

In the lead-up to the operation, Albuquerque Lieutenant Josh Brown asked Rob Gibson, an Amazon Logistics loss prevention manager, if he had gotten a chance to “look up the heat map data we talked about.” Gibson replied the next day with two files: “Albuquerque Last 60 Days Head Map,” [sic] and “Albuquerque YTD Heat Map.”

“LT here are the high level heat maps representing loss data,” Gibson said on December 13.

“Albuquerque Last 60 Days Head Map” showing months “10 to 12.”
Image: “Albuquerque Last 60 Days Head Map” [sic] showing months “10 to 12.”
“Albuquerque YTD Heat Map” showing months “1 to 12.”
Image: “Albuquerque YTD Heat Map” showing months “1 to 12.”

The files show eight zip codes in Albuquerque, shaded in light and dark grey. The emails obtained by Motherboard were non-searchable PDFs, indicating that these greyscale images were most likely printed and scanned.

Earlier emails sent by Gibson to Lieutenant Brown said that he would “get to work on the data analysis for the area.” Gibson asked one of his colleagues to send 30 Amazon boxes, one roll of Amazon tape, and lithium ion stickers (which suggest expensive electronics might be inside the dummy package) to the police department. A Ring representative was also copied on the email.

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 has an incentive to sell Ring doorbells, but not necessarily an incentive to support ethical policing. By promoting Ring and partnering with police, Amazon is creating a vertically integrated company that delivers packages, but also has a built-in surveillance and policing network.

“Because there’s no transparency, we only have Amazon’s word that this map is accurate,”Gilliard said. “That’s really worrisome. It comes really close to the line with Amazon having a private police force.”

December 6 email with representatives from Amazon, Ring, and the Albuquerque Police Department. Email addresses redacted by Motherboard.
Image: December 6 email with representatives from Amazon, Ring, and the Albuquerque Police Department. Email addresses redacted by Motherboard.
December 7 email with representatives from Amazon, Ring, and the Albuquerque Police Department. Email addresses redacted by Motherboard.

Another email shows that police are also monitoring Nextdoor, a social media app for neighborhoods.

“As a member of the Volterra Crime Prevention Committee, and working with the APD Foothills Substation liaison, I would like to ask any interested parties to send me a private message describing good areas in our neighborhood where another bait package with GPS tracking could be deployed,” the post says.

The post says that another sting operation could “greatly assist APD in apprehending the criminals.” Volterra is a gated community in Albuquerque. It’s unclear if a Volterra-specific package theft sting operation occurred.

Amazon has helped local police departments conduct a series of package theft sting operations in cities around the country—including Jersey City, NJ; Hayward, CA; Aurora, CO; Albuquerque, NM; and Green Bay, WI. Motherboard has previously published documents describing the planning of these package theft sting operations in Hayward and Aurora.

In previous emails to Motherboard, an Amazon spokesperson repeatedly stated that the package theft sting operation in Aurora, CO was “not Amazon’s operation.”

“This was the operation of the Aurora, CO police department,” the spokesperson said. “As we state in our statement, we appreciate the effort by local law enforcement to tackle package theft in their communities, and we remain committed to assisting them in their efforts however we can. However, in no way are these OUR operations.”

After Motherboard published that article, the company spokesperson asked us to change our headline ("How Amazon and the Cops Set Up an Elaborate Sting Operation That Accomplished Nothing").

"Your headline, especially by putting Amazon first even before the police department (!), is incredibly misleading and inaccurate," the spokesperson said. "We provided support but this was not our operations—we did not plan it, we did not set it up, we did not execute it, we had nothing else to do other than provide the supplies when we were asked."

Motherboard doesn't know whether Amazon provided package loss heat maps to other cities that conducted package theft sting operations, or if this only occurred in Albuquerque. The Albuquerque emails show, however, that Amazon is more involved in some of these operations than it has previously admitted.

In a press release shared with Albuquerque government officials email dated December 18, a government officials described the operation as a part of the "Bait Package Prevention Program." The program is described as a series of "business partnerships" between the police, Amazon, and Ring. The Albuquerque Police Department did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

When reached for comment by Motherboard for this article, an Amazon spokesperson said "We appreciate the effort by local law enforcement to tackle package theft in their communities, and we remain committed to assisting them in their efforts however we can.”

A Ring spokesperson said, "We believe that when residents and law enforcement work together, we can help create safer communities. As we continue on our mission to make neighborhoods safer, we support law enforcement’s efforts to educate the community and prevent instances of crimes like package theft.” Both of these statements are identical those provided for a previous article about Aurora, CO.

These operations serve as a de facto advertisement for Amazon. They cultivate a fear that one’s neighbors could steal a package, and they paint Amazon and Ring as entities that can help keep residents safe.

“You can see how the desire to sell a product is the overriding impetus for Amazon ‘crime prevention’ initiatives—essentially selling fear, and the fear of invasive others,” Gilliard said in a phone call. “It’s a way of getting more people to buy doorbells. That’s really disconcerting.”

Neighbors, the free Ring-associated “neighborhood watch” app has a notorious issue with racial profiling, as reported by Motherboard earlier this year. In June, a Ring Facebook ad shared footage of a person suspected of a crime and asked people to identify the person. Amazon has also promoted the use of Rekognition—a real-time, inexpensive facial recognition software—to law enforcement. Rekognition has been known to make false-positive matches with people of color.

All of the documents obtained by Motherboard for this story are public and viewable on DocumentCloud.