Suppose your neighbor’s security camera recorded your private conversation. Is that an invasion of your privacy?
A U.K. judge recently ruled that, by using the Amazon Ring video doorbell, a homeowner violated data laws and his neighbor’s privacy. This decision could have significant implications for how manufacturers design smart security cameras and comply with human rights and data protection laws. At the very least, it continues an ongoing conversation about our attitude towards domestic surveillance in the United States and how normalized Ring doorbell cameras have become in our communities.
Below, we’ll unpack how Ring video doorbells can violate human rights and what you can do to protect your privacy (hint: don’t buy into the security hype).
The surveillance empire
Amazon Ring video doorbell cameras capture images and movements of anything appearing in the range of the camera and its surrounding environment. This includes footage of public streets and places that go beyond private property. Ring video recording functionality and audio processors can pick up sound 40 feet away.
Ring has a long track record of partnering with police departments in the United States. In the last two years, Ring-police partnerships have almost tripled in number, bringing the grand total to over 2,000 partnerships. Amazon even gave police talking points to promote the technology, free devices, and discounted codes to publicize the cameras and its accompanying social network and app, Neighbors. Essentially, Amazon turned law enforcement into its sales department with promises of extensive and intrusive video surveillance of their communities. However, it is unclear how much the cameras help in deterring or solving crimes. Ring claims that its cameras reduce crime in neighborhoods, but there is little concrete evidence to support the claim.
Amazon’s Neighbors app adds another dimension to the surveillance regime. The app allows Ring doorbell owners to upload videos from their devices and discuss theirs and others’ videos. According to Ring, all posts on Neighbors are “proactively moderated” and must adhere to the company’s guidelines, including a prohibition on racial profiling, hate speech, and other forms of discrimination. Despite Ring’s terms of service and community guidelines, a VICE Motherboard investigation revealed that “video posts on Neighbors disproportionately depict people of color, and descriptions often use racist language or racist assumptions about the people shown.”
Amazon told Congress it does not offer facial recognition technology as part of its Ring products or services. Still, a recent class-action lawsuit alleges Ring video doorbells violate the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. The lawsuit claims that Ring has been collecting, storing, and using biometric identifiers like “face templates” and other “geometric data relating to the unique [facial] points and contours” and then using “the analysis to further develop its own facial recognition software.” Amazon denies these allegations.
Amplifying discrimination, one sensor at a time
Ring-police partnerships pose a severe threat to human rights, particularly the right to privacy, freedom of expression, and association. Law enforcement has already used the technology to monitor political activity and protests. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department used Ring cameras to monitor Black Lives Matter protests. Ring-police partnerships provide police with a much more expansive surveillance system than they could build themselves. The partnerships also create incentives to place products, like Ring’s doorbell cameras, in already overpoliced minority neighborhoods. While law enforcement requests are public, Amazon hasn’t placed any restrictions on police sharing footage with third parties or limits on how long law enforcement can hold the footage.
Within the last year, posts on the Ring Neighbors app demonstrate the role of anti-Black citizen vigilantism in expanding law enforcement’s capacity to monitor and track Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The previously mentioned VICE Motherboard investigation exposed the prevalence of discriminatory and racist comments and assumptions among people using the Neighbors app. Out of more than 100 user-submitted posts over two months in the New York City area, those the app users most commonly reported as “suspicious” were people of color. In one instance, commenters encouraged a user who posted a video to call the NYPD and suggested (without evidence) that a group of young “suspicious” Black boys planned to smoke crack. We know that calling the police excessively results in fatal outcomes for Black and Brown people. The murder of Trayvon Martin demonstrates the darker side of neighborhood watch programs and the citizen vigilantism we should avoid empowering.
The egregiously lax oversight, lack of transparency, and scant limitations on Amazon Ring’s data collection practices are a recipe for disaster. Amazon is not forthcoming about what biometric data it collects, especially in regards to face data, as evidenced by the Illinois class-action suit. Facial recognition technologies have significant flaws in their current forms, such as their racial and gender biases. Facial recognition tech has already led to wrongful arrests of multiple Black men in the United States, undermining the right to privacy, due process, and freedom of movement.
As this piece from Digital Camera World concludes, Amazon appears to be taking the view that there isn’t anything wrong with the tech itself, just how people use it. In response to the U.K. ruling, Amazon released a statement that puts the burden mainly on homeowners to operate its devices in compliance with the law. While the U.S. Congress has not yet passed a comprehensive federal data protection law, Amazon’s response to the U.K. ruling gives us insight into how Amazon views privacy and how it avoids accountability.
In a statement, Ring said: “We strongly encourage our customers to respect their neighbors’ privacy and comply with any applicable laws when using their Ring device. We’ve put features in place across all our devices to ensure privacy, security, and user control remain front and center.”
Amazon’s failure to prioritize privacy and human rights and decision to evade responsibility is deeply concerning. At a bare minimum, Amazon should require meaningful and informed consent before collecting and processing personal information and ensure that users do not collect footage of people in public spaces.
If you or someone you know owns a Ring camera, reconsider what you’re doing. It is up to you and your community to combat surveillance, the erosion of privacy, and discriminatory systems.