At the very least, Amazon seems to be listening.
After years of criticism from civil liberties groups and privacy advocates, Amazon will no longer let police privately ask users of its Ring products such as smart doorbells to share video footage their cameras have captured. Instead, police will have to make those requests in public via Ring’s Neighbors app, where anyone—including people who don’t own any Ring products—can see them.
That change is in addition to the boundaries Amazon sets on what police can ask for in the first place. They can’t seek footage from longer than a 12-hour period or from areas that are more than a half-mile from an incident, and each request must relate to a specific active investigation. Amazon also says police can’t “intentionally” ask for information about protests or other lawful activities.
For a company that seemed blissfully ignorant of civil liberties concerns in the past—ignoring substantive criticisms and treating them more as PR problems—those are welcome changes. Still, some of Amazon’s critics say the company isn’t going far enough to fix what they see as an unchecked system for people to spy on one another. They also don’t think the new system obviates the need for stricter regulations around private surveillance cameras.
“It’s a slight harm reduction on a piece of technology that is still fundamentally harmful,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
More transparency, more oversight
Until now, police could use a software portal provided by Ring to request footage from a given area and time range, and users would receive those requests via private alerts via email. While users could always refuse footage requests or opt out of seeing them entirely, they had no way to see what kinds of requests police were sending to others.
The EFF’s Guariglia acknowledges that making all police requests public will help with oversight. In February, the EFF found that the Los Angeles Police Department was making overly broad requests for footage related to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, but the EFF had to uncover that information via public records requests.
While Amazon hasn’t provided any simple ways to summarize the new public requests flowing through Neighbors, Guariglia is optimistic that researchers will find ways to scrape the app for data. Amazon also says it will issue its own reports, and it will show the number of police requests on its map of agencies that work with the company starting in Q3.
“I think having all of their requests publicly documented on a profile that you can scroll through might make police more careful in the types of footage they request,” he says. “It might also make it easier for researchers and journalists to document what’s happening behind the scenes.”
Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, says her group will be doing just that. She expects the group to start looking at all police requests at the end of the year for signs of discrimination, for instance through disparate policing of certain ZIP codes.
“I’m pretty excited about that, and I can’t hide it,” she says. “It’s good to have this information.”
Fundamental flaws remain
That’s not to say privacy advocates think their mission is accomplished. Guariglia says Ring should go much further and unwind its police partnerships entirely.
“I continue to ask of the company, why do you have to create any kind of apparatus for police to enable them to request footage straight from your customers?” he says.
One potential explanation: It’s been good for Ring’s business. Through Ring, Amazon has long pursued deep relationships with law enforcement. In 2019, Gizmodo’s Dell Cameron reported on how Ring provided police with statistics on how often residents refused footage requests, and CNet’s Alfred Ng uncovered a program in which Ring provided police with heat maps of all of its users. (Ring says it has discontinued both of these initiatives.) Vice’s Caroline Haskins also reported on how Ring had coached police departments on how to be more effective at getting users to hand over their footage.
In turn, Amazon has benefited from those partnerships even while offering them for free. In the past, police departments have held contests or offered discounts for Ring products and have promoted Ring with Amazon’s assistance, allowing the company to win market share in a saturated product category.
That may explain why Fight for the Future, a digital rights activist group and longtime Ring critic, was insufficiently impressed with Ring’s latest announcement.
“Amazon Ring is a product that is inherently incompatible with basic human rights,” Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s director, said in a statement. “The company has made it crystal clear that it has aspirations of building a private surveillance empire that is bone-grafted to government institutions in order to solidify its monopoly power.”
Greer argued that even with footage requests out in the open, blanketing neighborhoods in always-online security cameras could still lead to more discrimination and racial profiling. The EFF’s Guariglia shares the same concern. While Ring has tried to make the Neighbors app a more positive place through stricter moderation and new guidelines, turning it into a place to solve crimes could introduce new challenges. (See, for instance, how neighborhood safety app Citizen has embraced vigilantism to keep users hooked.)
“Neighbors runs the risk that a lot of very similar crowdsourced community apps present, which is vigilantism, the ability for people to racial-gatekeep their neighborhoods, and to promote paranoia and racial bias against pedestrians,” Guariglia says.
A turning point, at least
In the past, Amazon seemed so laser-focused on pleasing its customers that it was blind to the broader societal issues its products were creating. That attitude seems to have shifted in recent months, perhaps in part because of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Like a lot of other tech giants, Amazon was accused of hypocrisy for supporting the protests even as its products could be used to reinforce racial profiling.
“I don’t know what impact last summer had on the company, but by all appearances they’ve definitely received the memo and are working pretty hard to address it,” World Privacy Forum’s Dixon says.
Dixon seems somewhat sympathetic to Amazon’s position, noting that in developing countries, the private surveillance situation can be far worse. She lauds Amazon for not incorporating face recognition into its products—though the company has patented ways to do so—and notes that the pressure to build out private surveillance systems extends beyond a single company. That means it’s all the more important to have regulations, rather than just expecting one company to act out of the goodness of its heart.
“I know that people would love this genie to go back in the bottle, but there’s a really big world out there where this genie is out of the bottle and having parties,” she says. “So we have to deal with that reality.”
This story has been updated to note that Ring previously sent footage requests via email, that it previously set boundaries on what police can ask for, and that the company plans to report on the number of requests police make.