Amazon’s Ring, a camera unit that attaches to doorbells and other areas to monitor users’ homes, is changing the way police request video footage after calls for more transparency.
Previously, police would make private requests for video footage to individual users in an area of interest by sending a bulk email to Ring users in that area. Now, police will have to make public their requests on Ring’s neighborhood watch app Neighbors.
The new transparency-focused feature will allow Neighbors users to see a public “Request for Assistance” notification on their feed (unless they opt out of such notifications). They can then decide whether they want to provide footage from their Ring security camera.
The move comes after criticism that Amazon’s products facilitate surveillance and invasion of privacy.
Ring is a smart security device company mainly known for their video doorbell product. They were bought by the e-commerce giant Amazon, Inc. in 2018. Ring’s devices connect to its related Neighbors app, where users can come together to discuss their footage and neighborhood safety issues.
The technology has attracted significant partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the country. According to Ring’s active agency tracker, thousands of police and fire departments have joined the Neighbors app.
In fact, more than 2,000 police and fire departments have joined the app, and have made 20,000 requests for people’s home videos just last year.
With the new “Request for Assistance” feature, Amazon has assured that no information will be shared with agencies without users choosing to do so. In addition, requests can only be sent by verified agencies, and a request history will be publicly viewable on the agency’s page so that citizens can see how the technology is being used.
American University law professor Andrew Ferguson said that the changes may make it harder for police to obtain videos for investigations.
“I think this change will result in less shared videos, in part because if you’re paying attention to want to share it — you’re not getting a direct request — you have to see the posts that police are putting out there,” he said. “The second is, in many communities, police have lost trust with the community, and they don’t want to share this video, and they don’t want to contribute to an enhancement of police power, so there could be pushback there. And I think it’s just an extra step that will limit the ease and efficiency of what had been the old system of obtaining videos for investigation.”
Ring’s Neighbors app isn’t the only neighborhood safety social app to come under scrutiny. Apps like Citizen and Nextdoor have also been criticized for things like surveillance, misinformation, and racial profiling.
One instance with the crowdsourced crime-tracking app Citizen involved the app putting a $30,000 reward for a man they wrongly believed was an arsonist.
Due to privacy and racial concerns, Amazon has extended its moratorium on law enforcement’s use of their facial recognition technology Rekognition. Some activists have argued that the technology has led to false arrests of people of color.