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Ring isn’t self-aware enough to handle its privacy controversies

The Amazon-owned doorbell camera company still argues that people upset with its relationships with police departments just don’t understand.

Ring isn’t self-aware enough to handle its privacy controversies
[Photo: Bernard Hermant/Unsplash]

When a Ring spokesperson reached out last week to offer a “candid conversation” about the company and its Neighbors app, I was cautiously optimistic.

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The Amazon-owned maker of smart doorbell cameras and security systems has never fully reckoned with the negative aspects of its products. Civil liberties groups say that Ring’s police partnerships promote surveillance without oversight, and that its Neighbors community watch app can provoke profiling and paranoia. Ring’s response to these criticisms has typically involved sidestepping substantive concerns while accusing its haters of getting the facts wrong.

But instead of a softer stance, my conversation with Eric Kuhn, the general manager of Ring’s Neighbors app, brought more of the same. We stepped through a 30-minute slide deck presentation that primarily rehashed how the Neighbors app already works, plus some news about how users can now categorize posts and report positive “Neighborly Moments.” The call was less about candor than about countering what Kuhn describes as “misinformation.”

“There’s been a lot of reporting about this,” Kuhn told me. “Not all of it is accurate. And so we want to make sure we’re showing this product exactly as it is, so that you understand it.”

Introspection, it seems, will have to wait. In Ring’s view, the backlash it’s been facing is all just a big misunderstanding.

Setting Ring’s record straight

Just to be clear, here’s how police access to Ring footage works today:

  • When police are investigating a crime, they can request footage within a certain area, and Ring can pass along those requests to users through its app.
  • Users can reject police requests, and Ring says it won’t identify individuals to law enforcement.
  • As of this month, Ring also lets users opt out of all police requests for footage via a toggle in the Ring app’s new Control Center, so they don’t have to wait for an initial request to opt out of future ones.
  • Even if users refuse to work with police, Ring may still turn over their footage in response to a valid search warrant.

None of this is new, except for one detail that Kuhn mentioned almost as an aside during our interview: If police submit a warrant for footage, Ring now says it will notify users unless it’s legally prohibited from doing so or if the products themselves are being used in connection with illegal activity.

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That’s a small step forward for Ring, but it doesn’t address the fundamental concerns people have about the company’s police partnerships.

The biggest is a lack of oversight for what amounts to a privately run neighborhood surveillance program. While Ring says police can only request footage for law enforcement purposes, it’s unclear how the company would enforce that rule or what its audit process looks like. (After publication, a Ring spokesperson said the company “reviews the custom messages for video request submissions every week.”) The only enforcement policy Kuhn cites is that Ring would “remove access to that [footage] and investigate” further if the company learned of misuse.

“We haven’t come across it, so I can’t speculate as to what actions we would be taking, but we would take it very seriously,” he says.

A related issue is that Ring has no control over what police do with footage once they’ve received it, which means they can share it with other agencies and keep it indefinitely. Despite criticism from lawmakers, it sounds like that’s not going to change.

“We can’t actually put restrictions around what they do once the video is evidence,” Kuhn says.

I also ask Kuhn what protections Ring might have against users recording other people’s property or collecting footage of children, and he says that’s more a question for the device side of Ring, rather than the Neighbors app, which he oversees. Ring acknowledges that it has no specific policy in place for children, but has “strict community guidelines” and options for reporting inappropriate posts.

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“I know that we advise users not to point that cameras at other properties and abide to all their local laws,” Kuhn says.

Other reckonings

Despite the lack of candor, I still wonder if Ring is starting to feel the weight of persistent criticism.

Last month, CEO Jamie Siminoff gave a contrite interview to CNet after users began reporting that their cameras had been hacked. When those reports appeared in December, Ring’s first instinct was to blame users for poor password hygiene, despite some big holes in Ring’s own security policies. But here was Siminoff offering clear steps forward in response to criticism, including mandatory two-factor authentication for new Ring devices and a new security portal in the Ring app.

Squint hard enough, and you can see a similar response in Ring’s Neighbors app, in which users can post camera footage for anyone—including non-Ring users—to see.

Getting Ring to recognize and respond to the downsides of its police partnerships will be tougher.

In our interview, Kuhn insisted that racial bias and profiling aren’t major issues. He says that these are the least common reasons that Neighbors users flag posts for inappropriateness, and that the app uses both machine and human moderators to keep offensive posts out. Still, the new ability to categorize posts represents an additional defense mechanism against toxic posts, and the addition of a “Neighborly Moments” could be a way to make the app seem less paranoid overall.

“The research has shown that when you make users stop and think, they’re less likely to lean on those implicit biases,” Kuhn says.

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Getting Ring to recognize and respond to the downsides of its police partnerships will be tougher. It’s a growing part of Ring’s business, with more than 400 partnerships around the country, many of which have involved doorbell camera giveaways (a program Ring phased out in 2019) and discounts for residents, and the backlash among civil liberties advocates may not be reaching most of the company’s customers. During last December’s busy shopping period, Jumpshot reported 180% year-over-year growth in Ring sales.

And while Siminoff was apologetic about Ring’s security lapses in his CNet interview last month, his defense of the company’s police partnerships was “full-throated,” CNet’s Ben Fox Rubin wrote at the time.

“If people responded to short-term controversy by immediately getting out of something they believe in and that is actually doing great things for the world, that’s not the planet that I’d want to live on,” Siminoff told Rubin. “I hope that humans and businesspeople are tougher than that.”

In reading these comments, I realize that my cautious optimism was misguided. Just as Ring believes that its Neighbors app is just misunderstood, Siminoff believes that people’s fears about privately run surveillance networks will eventually disappear. And he might be right; Ring has already transformed suburban life in ways both good and bad, and no amount of pushback is going to wind back the clock. The best that Ring, its customers, and its critics can do now is try and minimize the damage.

Still, it’d be nice if Ring would at least candidly acknowledge this itself.

This story has been updated to further clarify some aspects of Ring’s police partnership and community guidelines.

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