The Ring gets a lot of criticism, not just for its massive surveillance network of home video doorbells and its problematic privacy and security practices, but also for giving that doorbell footage to law enforcement. While Ring is making moves towards transparency, the company refuses to disclose how many users had their data provided to the police.
The video doorbell maker, acquired by Amazon in 2018, has partnerships with at least 1,800 U.S. police departments (and growing) that can request camera footage from Ring doorbells. Before a change this week, any police department that Ring partnered with could privately request doorbell camera footage from Ring customers for an active investigation. The Ring will now let its police partners publicly request video footage from users through its Neighbors app.
The change ostensibly gives Ring users more control when police can access their doorbell footage but ignores privacy concerns that police can access users’ footage without a warrant. Civil liberties advocates and lawmakers have long warned that police can obtain camera footage from Ring users through a legal back door because Ring’s sprawling network of doorbell cameras are owned by private users. Police can still serve Ring with a lawful demand, such as a subpoena for basic user information or a search warrant or court order for video content, assuming evidence of a crime.
According to a transparency report that Ring published quietly in January, Ring received over 1,800 legal demands during 2020, more than double from the year earlier. The circle does not disclose sales figures but says it has “millions” of customers. But the report leaves out the context that most transparency reports include: how many users or accounts had footage given to police when Ring was served with a legal demand?
When reached, Ring declined to say how many users had footage obtained by police. That number of users or accounts subject to searches is not inherently secret. Still, an obscure side effect of how companies decide — if at all — to disclose when the government demands user data. Though they are not obligated to, most tech companies publish transparency reports once or twice a year to show how often user data is obtained by the government.
Transparency reports were a way for companies subject to data requests to push back against damning allegations of intrusive bulk government surveillance by showing that only a fraction of a company’s users is subject to government demands. But context is everything. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Twitter all reveal how many legal requests they receive and specify how many users or accounts had data given. In some cases, the number of users or accounts affected can be twice or more than threefold the number of demands they received.
Ring’s parent, Amazon, is a rare exception among the big tech giants, which does not break out the specific number of users whose information was turned over to law enforcement. “Ring is ostensibly a security camera company that makes devices you can put on your own homes, but it is increasingly also a tool of the state to conduct criminal investigations and surveillance,” Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.
Guariglia added that Ring could release the numbers of users subject to legal demands, but also how many users have previously responded to police requests through the app. Ring users can opt out of receiving recommendations from police, but this option would not stop law enforcement from obtaining a legal order from a judge for your data. Users can also switch on end-to-end encryption to prevent anyone other than the user, including Ring, from accessing their videos.