Amazon gave police departments Ring footage without permission

A ring doorbell fixed next to a door on the wall
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Amazon’s Ring doorbell unit has admitted to providing police forces with data without users' consent 11 times so far this year, according to a prominent US politician.

Democratic senator Edward Markey released the findings from his probe into Ring, which highlighted the close relationship between the company and law enforcement, according to a letter the senator received from the company.

The company said it provided the videos to law enforcement in response to emergency requests. It said that in each instance, Ring made a good-faith determination that there was an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to a person requiring disclosure of information without delay.

"It’s simply untrue that Ring gives anyone unfettered access to customer data or video, as we have repeatedly made clear to our customers and others," a spokesperson for Amazon's Ring said in a statement. "The law authorises companies like Ring to provide information to government entities if the company believes that an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person, such as a kidnapping or an attempted murder, requires disclosure without delay. Ring faithfully applies that legal standard."

The doorbell unit also revealed that its Neighbors Public Safety Service (NPSS), a platform that allows police and others to ask Ring owners for footage, currently has 2,161 law enforcement agencies and 455 fire departments enrolled. This represents a more than five-fold increase in law enforcement partnerships on the platform since November 2019.

“As my ongoing investigation into Amazon illustrates, it has become increasingly difficult for the public to move, assemble, and converse in public without being tracked and recorded,” said Markey. “We cannot accept this as inevitable in our country. Increasing law enforcement reliance on private surveillance creates a crisis of accountability, and I am particularly concerned that biometric surveillance could become central to the growing web of surveillance systems that Amazon and other powerful tech companies are responsible for.”

The senator has called on Congress to pass the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act to stop law enforcement from accessing sensitive information about citizens’ faces, voices, and bodies.

Ring also refused to commit to not incorporating voice recognition technology in its products. It stated that only police and fire departments are on NPSS, despite the company’s commitment to actively recruit public health departments, animal services, and agencies that primarily address homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health onto Ring’s platform.

The doorbell unit failed to clarify the distance from which Ring products can capture audio recordings and refused to commit to eliminate Ring doorbells’ default setting of automatically recording audio, stated the senator. The company also refused to commit to make end-to-end encryption the default storage option for consumers.

"It takes a lot of nerve for Amazon's Ring to promise a sense of safety to the face of its customers only to go around their backs giving away their private footage to the police without consent," said Nuno Guerreiro de Sousa, a technologist from Privacy International. "Allowing police to skip due processes such as warrants is not making anyone safer, one the very contrary, it opens extremely dangerous precedents."

In 2019, over 30 civil rights organisations wrote an open letter that called on government officials to investigate Amazon Ring’s business practices and end its numerous police partnerships. The letter added that Amazon is able to vacuum up enormous amounts of data which is then used to bolster Amazon’s corporate interests, often at the expense of local businesses and smaller competitors.

“Amazon’s latest encroachment with the Ring-police partnerships exemplify the company’s willingness to do what it takes to expand their data empire,” the organisations said. “Once they have this data, there is nothing stopping them from using it for their own profit-driven purposes.”

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.