Amazon is attempting to set the record straight on Ring, the security camera company that the tech giant acquired in 2018.
Ring has been making headlines over the past few months because of its relationship with local law enforcement agencies. Privacy advocates and government officials are concerned that the company has become too cozy with law enforcement, reportedly working with local police to market Ring products. Amazon is also fielding criticism for its lack of transparency around partnerships with local police departments.
Ring is attempting to shed some light on the situation. The company defended itself in a letter to U.S. Sen. Ed Markey released Wednesday. The letter echoed comments made by Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff in an interview with GeekWire following the Amazon devices launch event in Seattle on Sept. 25. During that discussion, Siminoff said customers only share surveillance footage with police on a voluntary basis, and the company never shares with police the identities of those who decline the requests.
“I believe that when you look at those facts of how the system works, it’s something that’s beneficial for neighborhoods, follows our mission, beneficial for customers and never puts them at risk in a privacy or security way,” Siminoff said at the time.
Ring sells smart doorbells with security cameras that allow customers to monitor activity on their front steps. Customers have access to Ring’s Neighbors app, which allows residents to post information about crime and other incidents. Neighbors is also the portal through which police contact Ring customers when they’re seeking security footage. Ring has established partnerships with more than 400 police departments across the country since launching its law enforcement program in 2018.
In September, Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking for information on Ring. Markey said he is concerned about “troubling” reports of Amazon marketing Ring products, and its facial recognition technology, to law enforcement agencies. The senator sent a list of questions to Bezos, which Amazon public policy lead Brian Huseman responded to earlier this month.
In the newly-released letter, Huseman said Ring has strict privacy standards and keeps customers anonymous unless they opt-in to sharing security footage with police. He noted that Ring security cameras are not currently outfitted with facial recognition technology but the company has considered adding it. Ring filed two facial recognition-related patent applications in 2018, according to CNET.
“If our customers want these features in Ring security cameras, we will only release these features with thoughtful design including privacy, security, and user control; and we will clearly communicate with our customers as we offer new features,” Huseman wrote.
Amazon has a separate facial recognition product that it markets to law enforcement agencies and other customers via its Amazon Web Services cloud division. Activists have long criticized Amazon’s facial recognition technology, claiming it amplifies human biases against women and people of color. Amazon disputes those claims.
Huseman’s letter revealed additional details about how and when police gain access to Ring footage. For example, police officers can request video recordings, from Ring customers, that are up to 45 days old. They can request footage in an area ranging from 0.025 to 0.5 square miles “to avoid targeting specific residents.” Police can only request footage tied to a specific crime with a case number, according to Huseman.
Siminoff said he doesn’t believe Ring’s business has been impacted by the critical media coverage.
“Our customers have been behind us,” he said. “They’ve been looking through some of the articles and really digging down and seeing that … we are not putting them at risk.”
Markey, for his part, is unconvinced. His office released a statement Tuesday criticizing Amazon for failing to implement more robust privacy standards for Ring products.
“Connected doorbells are well on their way to becoming a mainstay of American households, and the lack of privacy and civil rights protections for innocent residents is nothing short of chilling,” he said. “Amazon Ring’s policies are an open door for privacy and civil liberty violations.”