Ring Let Cops Know How Often Their Requests For Camera Footage Were Ignored

from the customer-service-still-matters dept

I have seen the future and it’s hundreds of law enforcement agencies morphing into Amazon subsidiaries. Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera currently commands 97% of the doorbell camera market. It’s easy to see why. Amazon has the marketing power and cash flow to hand out discounted cameras to police departments, using them as loss leaders to ensure buy-in by end users, many of whom get these cameras for free from local cops.

What’s the catch? There isn’t one* — not if you disregard the implications of accepting a free surveillance camera from law enforcement. Ring wants more end users and for more of those end users to download its Neighbors app. Neighbors accelerates the sharing of doorbell cam footage. It also accelerates bigotry, which tends to turn virtual meetups on Neighbors into a discussion about shady people of color wandering the neighborhood.

*Sometimes there’s a catch.

It’s not enough for Ring to command nearly 100% of the market. It also spends its time vetting law enforcement statements and press releases to ensure cop shops stay on brand and push the Neighbors app. The more people cops can convince to use the app, the bigger the discount on the next order of Ring doorbells.

Sharing is what matters. Encouraging people to share footage of suspicious activity with their neighbors via the app breaks down reservations people might have about turning over footage to cops. Law enforcement requests are made through a portal provided by Ring, which includes a map that shows cops every residence that has a Ring doorbell installed.

The Guardian has obtained documents from two more of the 400+ law enforcement agencies currently partnering with Ring. These documents contain screenshots of Ring doorbell maps from the portal, as well as its template for warrantless footage requests.

The documents also contain a very heavily-edited press release from the Gwinnett County Police Department. Nearly the entire thing has been rewritten by Ring reps, excising mentions of Ring’s donation of 80 cameras, as well as language that makes it clear law enforcement will have access to any footage uploaded to the Neighbors app. [Picture via The Guardian]

The end game is seamless access to recordings, with the wheels greased by social media interaction and the implicit suggestion that recipients of free doorbell cameras may want to repay the favor with a little footage.

But not everyone is willing to give cops warrantless access to footage. Well, Ring is on top of that as well, as Dell Cameron reports for Gizmodo. Upon request, it will hand over rejection stats to law enforcement, letting them know how often citizens (or “civilians” in Ring’s PR language) aren’t meeting their tacit obligations. Turns out it’s most of them.

The request data acquired by Gizmodo, which covers a five-month period in 2018, showed that Ring customers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, had largely ignored police requests for footage. Between May and September of 2018, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department issued 22 requests via Ring’s law enforcement portal. Those requests resulted in 319 emails being sent to residents asking them to hand over footage, a statistic that the company now says it keeps confidential.

Supposedly, Ring is no longer doing this. According to its spokesperson, it no longer makes this info available to law enforcement agencies. But this low hit rate has to be a concern. The requests come via the Neighbors app or via email. In some cases, people may not have seen the email. In many more cases, people probably just opted out by ignoring or deleting the request.

Police officers also do not know who they’re sending requests to. A geofence of sorts narrows down what cameras might provide useful footage, but the portal does not identify the end users. This is a good way to handle this, ensuring there are no reprisals for refusals. But this siloing means nothing when cops are part of the installation team.

In Fort Lauderdale, police went to dozens of homes and helped residents install Ring cameras after holding raffles at neighborhood watch meetings and handing them out for free.

Given the amount of data that is available to law enforcement via the portal, it’s pretty easy to narrow down who’s been helpful and who should have their emergency call backburnered. Given enough rejections, officers may just decide these Ring owners don’t care enough about the safety of their neighborhood to warrant a speedy response. But if these requests are headed to inboxes filled with other junk email, there’s probably no malice intended. Hopefully, no one’s treating these non-responses as antagonistic, but that’s always a concern when the cop mindset tends to be “us vs. them” — especially those who refer to work as engaging in a “war” against crime.

Every document obtained by journalists brings more bad Ring news to the discussion. The company has already decided it will back the blue. Those in blue seem to enjoy this partnership, even if it means they won’t be obtaining much footage and all public-facing announcements must be run by the company before they can be released. Amazon is blurring the line between public and private to grow a private market. If cops want to get pissed off about anything, maybe it should be their demotion to Ring brand ambassadors.

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Companies: amazon, ring

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Comments on “Ring Let Cops Know How Often Their Requests For Camera Footage Were Ignored”

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UneekElements (profile) says:

Did I misread?

I know the article was about the published statistics of refusals in the past, but I don’t think police care much about the big picture statistics.

What is more concerning to me is on an individual level they will already know who refused because they’re seeking footage from a specific "geofenced" area, and with one visit to the "crime scene" can figure out which buildings have Ring doorbells facing the area, and see what footage he received from their request for the "geofenced area of potential useful footage" and easily determine who didn’t submit it.

As an aside, if cops only have access to footage that is uploaded to a social media app (Neighbors) or specifically requested and approved like this, I think a lot of past coverage (not necessarily on TD, but everywhere) was a little over the top.

… Of course police have access to public posts made on social media.

Anonymous Coward says:

It also accelerates bigotry, which tends to turn virtual meetups on Neighbors into a discussion about shady people of color wandering the neighborhood.

That Vice article is weak. It makes a lot of claims of racism with little support. Eg: "In fact, several posts on Neighbors complain about delivery employees, always people of color, not delivering their packages gently enough"—but there’s no evidence that anyone but the Vice reporter said anything about the skin color; only that the delivery people were mishandling their packages.

It also says "Video posts on Neighbors disproportionately depict people of color", without saying what they’re measuring in proportion to. Disproportionate with respect to the general population, or to the population who commit crimes? (Racial disparities between those groups are a real problem, but not a camera-related problem.) And again, nobody’s alleged to have mentioned their appearance.

The story gives many examples of petty namecalling, even comments wishing harm on people in the videos. The statement that it "reinforces the racist biases of its users", while believable and concerning, just isn’t backed up within the article itself.

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