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Security & privacy

Amazon’s nationwide police partnership and surveillance network are growing — fast

Ring is getting dinged for its partnerships with hundreds of police departments across the country. Those partnerships are generating fears that police and the Amazon-owned video doorbell system are creating localized surveillance networks.

Ring even provides special features exclusively for police that are not available to its customers. The recent revelation of how many police departments Ring is working with is raising the question of whether Amazon is more interested in keeping homes and neighborhoods safe or pumping up sales.

We’ll tell you how the Ring-police partnerships work, how police access your video and whether your right to privacy is being violated. Also, we look at whether this is the start of a national surveillance system.

Ring finally reveals how many police partnerships it has

Since Ring began pushing partnerships with police departments it has closely kept under wraps exactly how many cities it is working with. We finally have the number — 405. And that likely doesn’t include cities that are in negotiations with Ring.

In response to pressure from the media and civil liberties groups, Ring released this interactive map:

Just about every major city can be found on the map, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to tweet:

Amazon purchased Ring in 2018 for $839 million. In 2015, the still independent Ring began conducting pilot police partnerships in a few cities. Business with cops started booming when Amazon took over.


Related: Kim’s Take: When being neighborly is spying


How police get Ring video

Police departments that partner with Ring are given access to a portal through Neighbors for Law Enforcement that allows officers access to a map showing approximate locations where Ring doorbells are installed, but not specific information on properties or individuals. Through the map, police can geo-ring an area to locate a camera or cameras that might have captured footage of a possible crime.

The Neighbors app also allows any member in a neighborhood to share news about local crimes or other information relevant to the community, but they don’t have access to the law enforcement portal.

Police have access to the app and can directly ask residents for help on active investigations. According to Ring, the Neighbors app protects its users’ privacy.

Under the partnership, police can only go through Ring to request video from a home’s doorbell. Ring sends an email directly to the customer on behalf of the police.

If a user decides to share his video with police, Ring says it will only give officers the user’s street address and email address.

But, while Ring denies it is in close cahoots with the police in obtaining video, public documents sent to Motherboard show the company has been coaching police departments on how best to ask for video footage. This coaching had been provided through webinars and emails.

Interestingly, the partnerships are even starting to worry some police. One officer told the Electronic Frontier Foundation that even though violent crimes are dropping, apps like Neighbors and Nextdoor give the impression that there is a threat behind every bush.


Related: New report claims Ring lets its employees spy on its customers


Is this the start of the Big Brother era?

Maybe the better question is whether Amazon is intentionally creating a surveillance state or is it just developing a new revenue stream? Amazon is all about making money, so it’s more likely the answer is the latter.

But how Amazon is going about pumping up sales of products like Ring through partnerships with the government and law enforcement agencies is alarming advocates for privacy and civil liberties. They fear that remaining on this path will result in a surveillance network that operates without a formal warrant.

Can a national surveillance network really happen? Of course, but not likely in this country.

While Amazon may help build localized surveillance networks, various governmental agencies’ continued failure to communicate with each other will foil attempts to link the networks together. Finally, government dysfunction that works for us.

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