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Amazon Ring Curbs Police Access to Doorbell Camera Footage—But Privacy Concerns Remain

by Jo Ellen Nott

In a move applauded by privacy advocates, Amazon-owned Ring announced on January 24, 2024, that it will no longer allow police to request doorbell camera footage directly from users through the Request for Assistance (“RFA”) tool on its Neighbors app. However, the company’s broader surveillance practices and police access to user data still raise concerns.

In its blog post announcing the removal of RFA, Amazon did not explain why it was being removed or if it would be replaced. Director Evan Greer of Fight for the Future says this raises some red flags. Greer cautioned Apple Insider that “[T]he footage these cameras collect will still be available to law enforcement through other avenues, especially in municipalities with camera registries.” He also warned that the public “cannot rely on Amazon to safeguard our intimate data and our civil rights.”

RFA was launched in 2021, allowing law enforcement agencies to make public requests for Ring footage regardless of intent and without a warrant. Prior to the RFA tool, police were able to send a direct email to a RING user requesting footage. And then, as now, law enforcement has the old school option of seeking a warrant from a judge based on probable cause.

Ring spokesperson Yassi Yarger told WIRED that “Ring will no longer offer a customer-facing feature that facilitates video sharing between Ring customers and law enforcement.”However, using an easy work around, the police can directly ask Ring users for their videos without using the RFA tool. Ring will also provide user information to law enforcement in cases where “there is imminent danger of death or serious physical injury….” In 2022, Ring gave 11 videos to police because of “exigent or emergency” situations and did not notify the Ring owners.

Matthew Guariglia, a senior policy analyst at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”), doubts that Ring and law enforcement always correctly determine what or what is not an emergency. Guariglia called the removal of the RFA tool a step in the right direction but reminds the public that Ring and law enforcement have had a “cozy relationship” that has allowed the irresponsible handling of data.

That irresponsible handling of data led to a $5.8 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission on June 1, 2023. The FTC’s complaint alleged that Ring failed “to implement meaningful guardrails to protect employees and third-party contractors from accessing customer videos.” One egregious incident cited in the filing was that of a Ring employee who viewed thousands of videos originating from Ring devices in the bedrooms and bathrooms of female users.

The complaint also accused Ring of failing to prevent cyberattacks on 55,000 customers when hackers “harassed, threatened and insulted customers” in 2017 and 2018. Under the settlement’s order, the FTC placed necessary restrictions and oversight on the surveillance company, including deleting all data and algorithms from unlawfully viewed videos, creating new privacy and security measures, barring employees from viewing customer videos, and banning the company from using some geolocation and voice information to improve or create products.

Despite the settlement and Ring disabling the RFA tool, privacy advocates still have several concerns. One is that the established network Ring has built from its partnerships with police departments could give rise to widespread 24/7 surveillance under different circumstances (think about a future authoritarian government coming into power). Another is that Ring has shared customer data with law enforcement without consent from the users in the past. A final concern is a lack of end-to-end encryption preventing users from fully encrypting their footage.

Ring prefers to call the sunsetting of the RFA tool an “internal decision” and has emphasized its focus is now on user empowerment and community building. The Neighbors app where RFA was formerly housed will now promote community connection and public safety sharing information.  

 

Sources: Apple Insider, NY Post, The Verge, WIRED

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