It’s that second group that has advocates and rights groups concerned about the chilling effect it has on First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly out of fear of retaliation by the police – especially if they’re protesting or speaking out against police violence, such as the Black Lives Matter protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands (or, more accurately, knee) of Minneapolis cops in May 2020.
In less than two years, the use of Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera devices by police departments to monitor all sorts of activities, even legal activity, has exploded, raising even more constitutional concerns about the practice. As revealed in response to a public records request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) to the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”), police sent requests to Ring users for footage of “the recent protests” over Floyd’s death in L.A. Much of the detail requested was redacted by the LAPD, including the date and time of the footage requested and the reasons for the requests.
The requests for Ring users’ video data were made by the Safe LA Task Force, which was created to investigate protests against police violence. Numerous other agencies also joined the task force, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation. EFF says that one of its concerns is that these Ring-police partnerships allow police to make bulk requests to Ring users for video capture by their devices. Ring even hands cops an app to make this a seamless procedure. Though turning over Ring data by users is voluntary, some say an official request by the police, complete with legal terms and case numbers, may be coercive.
There’s also no governing rules on when police can request Ring video from users, EFF surveillance policy analyst Matthew Guariglia says. “This can be especially troubling, and especially chilling to political expression, when people are protesting the same institutions doing the surveillance, namely the police. Ring requests provide an unregulated avenue through which police could theoretically use a trash can being knocked over as justification for requesting footage of 12 hours of peaceful protesting.”
Ring trains police on how to “cajole” users to voluntarily turn over their Ring video, according to a 2019 Motherboard report. Should that fail, law enforcement can still obtain a court order for the data, because all Ring video is stored on Amazon’s servers. However, this would raise the sticky situation of convincing a court of the legality of such an order.
The Ring device, which Amazon bought in 2018 to curb theft of their packages, has unwittingly become a valuable tool for police in keeping an unblinking eye on the public.
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