Tech by VICE

Cities Asked Ring to Share ‘Registry Lists’ of Customers Who Bought Surveillance Cameras

Police want the names and addresses of people who own Ring cameras so they can tap into a private surveillance network.

by Caroline Haskins
Aug 20 2019, 6:57pm

Cities and local police departments have asked Ring, Amazon's home security company, to share the names, home addresses, and email addresses of every person who has bought a home surveillance camera through taxpayer-funded subsidy programs Motherboard has learned.

Ring obtained personal customer information as a part of the company’s taxpayer-funded discount programs, in which cities subsidize the purchase of Ring surveillance cameras for residents. Motherboard has written about and explained these programs at length. Basically, Ring will match every dollar committed by a city through these discount programs. In other words, for every $100 residents save when buying a Ring product, the city pays $50 and Ring pays $50. Typically, cities invite Ring to sell discounted cameras at in-person events. Ring will also provide city discount codes that residents can use to buy discounted cameras online.

According to documents obtained by Motherboard, city officials from Arcadia, CA and Rancho Palos Verdes, CA have asked Ring to share a registry of everyone who owns a Ring camera in the neighborhood. Ring has also, in at least one city, claimed to have individually mapped people who redeemed discount codes for subsidized Ring cameras online.

City Council meeting minutes from Rancho Palos Verdes, CA—which paid $100,000 for a discount program in 2017—claim that Ring told the city that the company could provide “a full breakdown of every resident and address that purchased a device” as a part of the discount program.

Excerpt from Rancho Palos Verdes City Council meeting on December 20, 2016.
Image: Excerpt from Rancho Palos Verdes City Council meeting on December 20, 2016.

Similarly, a document from the police department of Arcadia, CA—which paid for Ring discount programs in 2017 and 2018—says, “Ring will also provide the City with an address report for the products purchased in order to help the Arcadia Police Department track the location of Ring Video Doorbells and other Ring security camera equipment, and assess the level of community interest.”

Emails between an Arcadia city government worker and a Ring employee show that the company kept a list of “names and emails” of everyone who purchased a city-subsidized camera. This information was shared with city government in order to “block” people from using a discount code if they already purchased a camera at an in-person event.

“We have names of all the people who purchased if you want to block these people,” a Ring employee said. “We will match against names and emails of everyone who purchased at the event and prevent people from doubling up.”

Arcadia, CA residents had to sign a “general release" waiver before purchasing a discounted Ring camera. However, this waiver makes no mention of how Ring, police, or the city obtain, store, or share their personal information.

An Arcadia government spokesperson told Motherboard that the city has not requested the registry from Ring, and the city does not have such a registry in their possession.

In an email to Motherboard, Ring denied that the company has ever provided customer information to cities that participate in its discount program. Ring claimed that city representatives misunderstood their communications with the company.

"Ring does not provide, and has never provided, resident information to law enforcement or cities participating in Ring's subsidy match program," the company said. "The statements made by Arcadia's representatives in presenting the subsidy program were a misrepresentation of what was contained in the agreement itself and no such information was provided to the City or Police of Arcadia at any point."

Ring has said that when police partner with the company, police do not have access to the exact home addresses of the Ring camera owners in their town. However, these documents show that when cities subsidize Ring camera purchases, cities have asked Ring to provide databases of their customers. City officials have said that police could use this database to help with its investigations, creating a private surveillance network used by public law enforcement. The documents demonstrate that cities and police want to have this type of information, though Ring denies ever providing it to them.

City council proceedings from Peoria, IL in February 2019—five months before the city set aside $50,000 for a Ring subsidy program, which has not been finalized yet—show that public representatives wanted a “registry” of private surveillance camera owners.

“Council Member Jensen suggested, in light of recent crime, doing a registry of video doorbells,” the Peoria city council proceedings state. “She said if crime were to occur in a certain area, Police could check the registry for possible video footage from people who had video doorbells. She requested a Report Back on working with the companies that provided video doorbells.”

Proceedings from the Peoria, IL city council February 26 meeting.
Image: Proceedings from the Peoria, IL city council February 26 meeting.

Likewise, police and city officials generally partner with Ring because they believe it will help prevent or reduce crime. But when people participate in these programs, they may not know that their local representatives have negotiated on their personal information can be shared.

Matthew Guariglia, a surveillance policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Motherboard in a phone call that people may not also understand Ring products are a part of a larger private surveillance network.

“When you're focused on the safety of your own front porch,” Guariglia said, “you’re not thinking about how your camera, which is supposed to be protecting your packages at your front door, is part of a network system.”

Gregory Nojeim, a senior counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a phone call that he doesn’t think that people who purchased Ring cameras at discount events realized that police might be interested in knowing where they live.

“It seems that on some level, either Ring or the local police ought to be giving people who take advantage of this program more information about what could happen to their personal information, to their address, and also about what the police would do with Ring video that they are maybe asked to voluntarily disclose,” Nojeim said.

Excerpt from a police department “Staff Report” from the police department of Arcadia, CA. Red box inserted by Motherboard.

Image: Email obtained from La Mirada, CA.

According to documents obtained by Motherboard, the police departments of La Mirada, CA; Aliso Viejo, CA; and Maywood, CA were not explicitly offered a Ring-owner registry, even though their cities participated in Ring subsidy programs.

The documents show that Ring asks for a $5,000 minimum pledge in order to begin a discount program.

A Rancho Palos Verdes, CA subsidy program contract from May 2017 shows that Ring keeps detailed program records that it must share with the city upon request. Ring keeps all of these documents for “three (3) years following completion of the services,” according to contract.

Documents maintained by Ring include “ledgers, books of accounts, invoices, vouchers, canceled checks, reports, studies” as well as “all drawings, specifications, maps, designs, photographs, studies, surveys, data, notes, computer files, reports, records, documents and other materials.”

Ring also told city workers that the company tracks the names, email addresses, and home addresses of everyone who uses an online promo code to take advantage of city-subsidized Ring discounts. Home addresses are mapped, accord in order to ensure that codes were not redeemed outside of city limits, documents obtained by Motherboard show.

Email obtained from La Mirada, CA.
Image: Email obtained from La Mirada, CA.

A Ring spokesperson said in an email that the company “has never created a map of everyone who used an online promo code as part of the subsidy program.” However, Ring also said that the company does creates maps in order to verify that people’s addresses are within city limits as a part of the subsidy program.

Eduardo De La Riva, Mayor of Maywood, CA, told Motherboard in an email that his city was "keeping a list of residents" the day of its own subsidy discount event. The purpose, according to De La Riva, was to manually check people’s names and make sure they weren’t reusing discount codes.

When a police department partners with Ring, police get access to Ring’s Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal. This portal is an interactive map that shows the approximate location of all Ring camera owners in a particular town. Police can request footage directly from camera owners using the portal.

People have to give police permission before they obtain footage, but police do not need a warrant in order to request footage. In exchange, the police are required to promote Ring products either implicitly or explicitly.

Nojeim said that even if people decline to provide Ring footage to law enforcement, there’s still a legal pathway for law enforcement to obtain footage.

“People ought to also realize that in the event they ought not to disclose Ring video, the government can compel its disclose from either them or from Ring without their consent,” Nojeim said. “For this, it would need legal process—in our view, a warrant.”

"As with any company, Ring is required to comply when properly served with a valid and binding legal demand such as a subpoena or a warrant,” a Ring spokesperson said in an email.

Guariglia that police are promoting surveillance networks by presenting it as a consumer choice.

“Police still have maps of where all the cameras are, and after jumping through some hoops, they may be able to get access to that footage,” Guariglia said. “All that seems like wanting to have a CCTV system but one that’s created by consumer choice so there’d be less of a public outrage against it.”

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

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