Amazon’s Ring Security Cameras: Protectors or Spies?

When Amazon bought smart security camera firm Ring for $1 billion in 2018, it emphasized the privacy and security it would provide for its users. Ring stated that customers would have a choice over “what information, if any, they share with law enforcement.” A Gizmodo investigation was able to reveal the potential locations of thousands of Ring cameras, indicating that Amazon and Ring may not have upheld their privacy promises.

Gizmodo reported the investigation “further offers one of the most ‘striking’ and ‘disturbing’ glimpses yet, privacy experts said, of Amazon’s privately run, omni-surveillance shroud that’s enveloping U.S. cities.”

Gizmodo was able to obtain data from nearly 65,800 posts on the Neighbors app. Posts on the app go back up to 500 days. This volume of posts reveals Ring’s rapid growth, which has enabled it to effectively build a surveillance network.

According to Gizmodo, the Neighbors app by Ring revealed hidden location coordinates connected to each post, giving latitude and longitude within six precision points. The coordinates were hidden but visible upon examination of the app’s network traffic. 

Police and users can access information on the app, although law enforcement has a special portal and can request Ring footage; choosing a date, time and location, and Neighbors users with cameras in the alerted area. Users have the option to share information with the police.

“Posts to the Neighbors app do not reveal the exact addresses of users or Ring devices owners,” a Ring spokesperson said. “When choosing to post to the app, users include the incident location, which is not always the same location as their address. These public posts are then displayed as happening at a nearby intersection close to the vicinity of the incident to protect user privacy.”

The Neighbors app is easily allowing the identification of the location of users’ addresses and homes. Gizmodo noted:

“In Beacon, New York, a reporter drove to coordinates that accompanied a Neighbors post about thieves stealing packages. Although they didn’t pinpoint the user’s home precisely, it took only a matter of minutes to locate it. A particular fence shown in the video wasn’t hard to spot.”

While Ring will notify a user of someone at the door and provide the footage, it is also recording users’ daily routine, allowing Amazon and others the potential to spy on users. Further, depending on the location of Ring devices, it could record people walking on the street or in and out of “‘sensitive buildings’ including certain medical clinics, law offices, and foreign consulates,” Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said. Gizmodo found cameras near abortion clinics and legal offices handling immigration and refugee cases.

 “There’s no question, if most people were followed around 24/7 by a police officer or a private investigator it would bother them and they would complain and seek a restraining order,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “If the same is being done technologically, silently and invisibly, that’s basically the functional equivalent.”

Users have the expectation that their posts are only seen from those living nearby, despite the fact that it can be accessed, including associated location data, from anyone in the world.

“It brings a pervasiveness and systematization that has significant potential effects on what it means to be a human being walking around your community,” Stanley said.

Ring could create a world where it is the norm to be surveilled when in public or outdoor spaces, by both the government and large corporations. “Essentially, we’re creating a culture where everybody is the nosy neighbor looking out the window with their binoculars,” Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation said. “It is creating this giant pool of data that allows the government to analyze our every move, whether or not a crime is being committed.”

Gizmodo noted that “[i]n the nation’s capital, for instance, walking the shortest route from one public charter school to a soccer field less than a mile away, 6th-12th graders are recorded by no fewer than 13 Ring cameras.” Ring’s guidelines state for users to protect others’ privacy, however, this is left to the discretion of the individual. Users should not upload videos of “individuals or activities where a reasonable person would expect privacy,” such as children walking to and from school.

The size and scope of Ring’s network raise concerns for some, as does Amazon’s history of privacy issues. “A photo of somebody as they pass by your house might not on its own tell you too much” Ángel Díaz, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice focusing on technology and policing, said “ But when you’re connecting an entire system that can, eventually, map people as they move around a neighborhood, it gives you a pretty intimate sense of where they live, where they work, and where they go to school.”

Amazon is helping law enforcement build a security surveillance network through Ring. However, it is unclear exactly what information is shared with law enforcement. Ring has also partnered with police departments to promote and use Ring and the Neighbors app.

The ACLU claimed that Ring is using fear-mongering tactics to sell its product. Additionally, cloud-connected cameras remove the advantages that private surveillance once had. It is difficult to say who will have access to the footage once it is on the cloud. Further, when police request a resident to share footage many will feel obliged to share it, whether or not they really want to share the footage.