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New Campaign Demands End to Amazon's Partnerships with Police

People can sign a petition urging their local government to forbid police partnerships with surveillance companies like Amazon’s Ring.

by Caroline Haskins
Jul 31 2019, 4:38pm

Image: Fight for the Future

Fight for the Future, an activist group focused on promoting civil liberties in digital spaces, launched a campaign today to help people demand that their local governments and police departments to stop partnerships with Ring, Amazon’s home surveillance company.

Through the campaign, people can sign a petition calling on their local mayor and city council representatives to forbid police from entering into partnerships with Ring and other private consumer surveillance companies or end existing partnerships.

Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, told Motherboard in a phone call that the campaign aims to give people a place to put their concern about Ring partnerships into action.

“Our elected officials, our mayors, our city council members, absolutely have the authority to set limits on what types of surveillance tools and technologies law enforcement officers should have access to,” Greer said, “and absolutely to set limits on what types of corporate, for-profit partnerships law enforcement agencies should be able to enter into.”

The campaign launch comes after reporting from Motherboard showed that Ring told police that it has partnered with 200 law enforcement agencies around the country. Gizmodo confirmed Motherboard’s reporting, as Ring told a different police department that it has partnered with 225 law enforcement agencies. Ring has refused to share a complete list of its partnerships with law enforcement.

Fight for the Future identified 31 law enforcement agencies that have partnered with Ring as part of a map of facial recognition use in the U.S. The map was made for a Fight for the Future campaign to ban the use of facial recognition in the U.S. Per reporting by The Intercept and The Information, Ring is quietly developing in-house facial, object, and voice recognition systems. All Ring users are engaging in de facto beta testing for these systems, and there is no way to opt-out. Law enforcement currently doesn’t use Ring’s developing recognition systems.

Ring partnerships involve signing contracts that sometimes require police to “encourage adoption” of Ring products by buying Ring’s doorbell cameras and downloading Neighbors, Ring’s free “neighborhood watch” app, per reporting from Motherboard. These partnerships also typically involve forbidding police from making any public statements about Ring unless the statements are approved by the company.

In exchange, police get access to Ring’s “Law Enforcement Neighborhoods Portal,” which lets police see the approximate locations of all Ring products in their towns and request footage directly from camera owners. Police need permission from camera owners, but they don’t need a warrant.

“Amazon is creating this seamless flow for people to rat out their neighbors,” Greer said. “It’s deputizing everyone that has one of these doorbells to be a part of a law enforcement drag net in a way that I think is really corrosive to our culture. It really encourages people to participate in spying on their neighborhoods.”

Ring and Amazon have also collaborated with law enforcement in other capacities. For instance, the companies helped local police around the country organize several package theft “sting operations.” These operations—which have occurred in Hayward, CA; Aurora, CO; Albuquerque, NM; Green Bay, WI; and Jersey City, NJ—involve setting up dummy Amazon packages, using tape and boxes provided by Amazon, and putting these packages on doorsteps equipped with Ring doorbell cameras.

Motherboard obtained documents from these operations from Hayward, CA; Aurora, CO; Albuquerque, NM. Amazon created package loss “heat maps” and provided them to police in Albuquerque, NM in order to plan their operation.

Motherboard reported in February that racial profiling is prevalent on Neighbors, Ring’s free “neighborhood watch” app. The app allows people to share footage from Ring cameras, or write text-posts describing events in their neighborhood. It also lets users tag posts to indicate “Suspicious” people or “Strangers” in their community. Motherboard documented every post on the app for three months in a 5-mile radius from our Williamsburg office and found that posts about “Suspicious” people or “Strangers” most often targeted people of color.

Amazon acquired Ring in 2018, and since then, the company has promoted Ring products as “Amazon’s Choice” for doorbell cameras. Ring also offers indoor cameras, designed to be put inside your home. On Prime Day, the company offered 30 to 40 percent discounts on Ring products and product sets. However, Ring surveillance products put people into a system where Amazon owns your camera footage, and police are a step away from obtaining it.

“The bottom line for me is that we are not safer in a world where there’s a thousand times more cameras than we have right now,” Greer said. “That is a more dangerous world, particularly for people who already face over-policing and discrimination within the criminal justice system.”