Police can keep Ring camera video forever, and share with whomever they'd like, company tells senator
By DREW HARWELL | The Washington Post | Published: November 19, 2019
Police officers who download videos from homeowners' Ring doorbell cameras can keep them forever and share them with whomever they'd like without providing evidence of a crime, the Amazon-owned firm told a lawmaker earlier this month.
More than 600 police forces across the country have entered into partnerships with the camera giant allowing them to quickly request and download video captured by Ring's motion-detecting, internet-connected cameras inside and around Americans' homes.
The company says the videos can be a critical tool in helping law enforcement investigate crimes such as trespassing, burglary and package theft. But some lawmakers and privacy advocates say the systems could also empower more widespread police surveillance, fuel racial profiling and spark new neighborhood fears.
In September, following a report about Ring's police partnerships in The Washington Post, Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., wrote to Amazon asking for details about how it protected the privacy and civil liberties of people caught on camera. Since that report, the number of law enforcement agencies working with Ring has increased nearly 50%.
In two responses from Amazon's vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, the company said it placed few restrictions on how police used or shared the videos offered up by homeowners. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
Police in those communities can use Ring software to request up to 12 hours of video from anyone within half a square mile of a suspected crime scene, covering a 45-day time span, Huseman said. Police are required to include a case number for the crime they are investigating, but not any other details or evidence related to the crime or their request.
Markey said in a statement that Ring's policies showed the company had failed to enact basic safeguards to protect Americans' privacy.
"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.
"If you're an adult walking your dog or a child playing on the sidewalk, you shouldn't have to worry that Ring's products are amassing footage of you and that law enforcement may hold that footage indefinitely or share that footage with any third parties."
Ring, which Amazon bought last year for more than $800 million, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Markey's questions focused in on ways the cameras could be used to capture children and other passersby without their knowledge or consent. Ring's terms of service states that users must install the cameras so they do not "take any recordings beyond the boundary" of a user's property, such as a public road or sidewalk. But when asked by Markey how the company enforced that, Ring said that users are responsible for following the rules and that Ring does not "view users' videos to verify compliance."
Amazon said that Ring users could decline police requests for video, and would not be directly identified based on their refusal, which Huseman said would "eliminate the pressure implicit in receiving an in-person request from police." "Users must expressly choose to assist police, the same way they would traditionally answer the door or respond to a public request for tips," he added.
Asked about Ring's plans regarding adding facial-recognition capabilities to its cameras, Huseman said it was a "contemplated but unreleased feature" that would only be made available to the public with "thoughtful design including privacy, security and user control." The company also listed other security cameras that offer facial-recognition features and said, "We do frequently innovate based on customer demand."
Best known for its popular doorbell cameras, Ring has sold millions of motion-detecting cameras that can be installed in peepholes, floodlights and indoors. Police requests can target footage from any of Ring's cameras, including video recorded inside an owner's home. The company says millions of homes across the U.S. now have Ring camera systems installed.
The cameras begin recording as soon as motion is detected and also offer live-streaming access to homeowners, who can then share the video footage onto the Ring video-based social network Neighbors. The stream of videos often includes high-resolution footage of people's faces, as well as labels of whom homeowners have deemed suspicious, and the company advertises the system as the core of a high-tech "new neighborhood watch."
Ring's police partnerships have exploded across the country, from the local police department in Seward, Alaska, to the sheriff's office in Key West, Florida. Roughly 630 law enforcement agencies across the country can now request homeowners' video through Ring, including 200 agencies that joined up within the last three months, according to a company map.
Ring has invested heavily in marketing itself as a high-tech safety companion for the American neighborhood, and its massive reserve of videos of children at doorsteps across the country - shared by homeowners to Ring's "Neighbors" social network - have become an unmistakable signature of their holiday advertising campaigns.
Earlier this month, the company said Ring doorbell buttons had been pressed 15.8 million times on Halloween, up from 8.3 million times last year. The peak time in Houston was 7 p.m., with more than 300,000 rings. How many of those trick-or-treaters had their image captured by Ring cameras is unknown.