Amazon's home security company Ring has enlisted local police departments around the country to advertise its surveillance cameras in exchange for free Ring products and a “portal” that allows police to request footage from these cameras, a secret agreement obtained by Motherboard shows. The agreement also requires police to “keep the terms of this program confidential.”
Dozens of police departments around the country have partnered with Ring, but until now, the exact terms of these partnerships have remained unknown. A signed memorandum of understanding between Ring and the police department of Lakeland, Florida, and emails obtained via a public records request, show that Ring is using local police as a de facto advertising firm. Police are contractually required to "Engage the Lakeland community with outreach efforts on the platform to encourage adoption of the platform/app.”
In order to partner with Ring, police departments must also assign officers to Ring-specific roles that include a press coordinator, a social media manager, and a community relations coordinator.
Ring donated 15 free doorbell surveillance cameras to the Lakeland Police Department, and created a program to encourage people to download its “neighborhood watch” app, Neighbors. For every Lakeland resident that downloads Neighbors as a result of the partnership, the documents show, the Lakeland Police Department gets credit toward more free Ring cameras for residents: “Each qualifying download will count as $10 towards these free Ring cameras.” A Ring doorbell camera currently costs $130 on Amazon.
Police already have access to publicly-funded street cameras and investigative tools that help them track down almost any criminal suspect. But Ring cameras are proliferating in the private sphere, with close to zero oversight. Amazon is convincing people to self-surveil through aggressive, fear-based marketing, aided by de facto police endorsements and free Ring camera giveaways. Consumers are opting into surveillance. And police are more than eager to capitalize on this wealth of surveillance data.
The result of Ring-police partnerships is a self-perpetuating surveillance network: More people download Neighbors, more people get Ring, surveillance footage proliferates, and police can request whatever they want.
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 this surveillance network can heighten fear of crime and put people’s lives at risk.
“When really powerful companies, or police for that matter, are incentivized to find crime, they’re going to find it no matter what,” Gilliard said. “It’ll ultimately shift the definition of what is a crime and lead to over-policing in some ways. Frankly, [it’s] the broken windows style that tends to harm marginalized communities more.”
THE MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING
The memorandum of understanding is pitched as "a solution to the Lakeland Police Department to help reduce crime and assist with investigations in your community." The document, which includes an "Amazon Legal" watermark, was signed by Ring and Lakeland Police Department representatives on December 13, 2018.
The agreement gives the Lakeland Police Department access to Ring’s “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal.” This portal is an interactive map that shows police all of the active Ring doorbell cameras in their town. The exact addresses of the doorbell cameras are hidden. Police can use the portal to directly interact with Ring doorbell camera owners and informally request footage for investigations, without a warrant.
Andrew Ferguson, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, said in a phone call that products like Ring can remove typical due process. Typically, police have to get a warrant from a judge before collecting digital evidence. Ring’s Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal, given to police for free as a part of the agreement, lets police request footage directly from Ring owners.
“What people fundamentally misunderstand is that self-surveillance is potentially a form of government surveillance,” Ferguson said. “Because the information that you are collecting—you think to augment and improve your life—is one step away from being obtained by law enforcement to completely upend your life.”
According to an email from Ring’s “Law Enforcement Liaison/Territory Manager,” the Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal can do the following:
The Lakeland Police Department was responsible for choosing how it would distribute the 15 doorbell cameras donated by Ring.
Ring was required to “Make the Ring App available to Lakeland residents free of charge.” (Ring’s Neighbors app is already free.)
As reported by Motherboard earlier this year, racial profiling is prevalent on Neighbors. Ferguson said that Neighbors, by highlighting alleged threats in different areas, cultivates a sense of fear of one's neighborhood, similar to hearing about crime and murders on local news.
“The [Neighbors] app, it’s necessarily going to be people that are looking for the unusual,” Ferguson said. “The unusual doesn’t just have to be criminal. It can just be uncomfortable, and you can imagine that in certain neighborhoods, that’s gonna correlate with race, it’s gonna correlate with class, it’s gonna correlate with difference.”
The agreement also requires Ring and the Lakeland Police to coordinate on all public communications regarding their partnership. “The parties shall agree to a joint press release to be mutually agreed upon by the parties,” the memorandum of understanding says.
According to an email from a Lakeland Police Department, the memorandum of understanding was approved by the Lakeland Police Department’s general counsel before the department signed on to it.
Ring asked police officers fill certain roles before it entered into a partnership with the police department. These roles—which include “Partnership Point of Contact,” “Press/Media Coordinator,” “Social Media Coordinator,” “Investigative Coordinator,” and “Community Relations Coordinator”—had job descriptions defined by Ring. These job descriptions are shown below.
Ring told Motherboard that these positions weren’t required, but an email from a Ring employee to local police says that Ring would “need” the positions filled.
“Involvement by each of these groups is essential for active community participation (specifically on video requests) and overall long-term success of the partnership,” Ring’s “Law Enforcement Liaison/Territory Manager” said in an email to Lakeland Police Department officers.
The emails obtained by Motherboard also reference the organization of two training sessions, which were led by Ring. According to the emails, the first training session was a Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal webinar, to be attended by only the five people with Ring-specific roles. The second training session was in-person and involved a Ring representative coming to the Lakeland Police Department headquarters and speaking to all police officers.
A PRIVATE SURVEILLANCE NETWORK
There is evidence that the number of towns and cities that have partnerships with Ring is far larger than is currently known. An email obtained by Motherboard includes an introduction of a Ring “Account Manager,” who a fellow Ring employee says “has worked with dozens of agencies in Florida.” This suggests that there are dozens of unknown partnerships between Ring and local police departments in Florida alone.
This is also not Ring’s only collaboration with law enforcement. As reported by Motherboard, Amazon and Ring have provided Amazon-branded boxes, tape, lithium-ion stickers, and Ring doorbell cameras to police to craft package theft sting operations. The explicit goal of these operations is to catch someone stealing a package on a Ring doorbell camera and apprehend them. In Albuquerque, NM, Amazon even provided package loss heat maps to police in order to plan the operation. These operations have occurred in Hayward, CA; Aurora, CO; Albuquerque, NM; Green Bay, WI; and Jersey City, NJ.
The Lakeland Police Department did not return Motherboard’s requests for comment.
A Ring spokesperson said in an email that the goal of Ring partnerships with police is to make neighborhoods safer.
“Through these partnerships, we are opening up the lines of communication between community members and local law enforcement and providing app users with important crime and safety information directly from the official source,” the 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.”
People often buy and use Ring doorbell cameras under the premise that they’re making their individual homes safer. But these people aren’t just making choices for themselves. They’re consenting to surveilling everyone in their neighborhood and anyone who comes in the vicinity of their home, including friends and family, delivery workers, and anyone else. Ferguson and Gilliard said that it’s important to remember the societal impacts of these decisions.
“Amazon has products to sell, and an incentive to get consumers to be fearful and buy their self-surveillance technologies; police have a related interest to obtain surveillance from areas that they don't have the resources to obtain surveillance from,” Ferguson said. “You can see why it’s in their economic sense. But it raises some problems and troubles and issues that society should have about whether this is the type of self-surveillance world we’re comfortable with.”
“I think a lot of this goes back to the premise that people often don’t think about how creating a network of surveillance ultimately is bad for society,” Gilliard said. “It’s not just bad for bad guys, it’s going to be bad for everyone.”
Ferguson said that it’s important to remember that consumers ultimately choose to use Ring products and consent to self-surveillance networks.
“The hard question, the hard trouble, is that this is really about a consumer-focused drive,” Ferguson said. “This is consumers making this choice to create self-surveillance cities.”
All of the documents that informed this article are now public and viewable on Document Cloud.
Update: July 29, 2019
After publication, the Lakeland Police Department told Motherboard that it did not distribute the cameras that Ring provided to the department, despite what the department agreed to do in the memorandum of understanding that it signed.
"The 15 cameras received initially from Ring in March of 2019 were sent back to Ring," a Lakeland Police Department said in an email.