Hand holding instructions of Amazon Ring Video Doorbell showing surveillance footage access by law enforcement

Ring Doorbell Surveillance Footage Accessed by Law Enforcement Without Warrants or Owner Consent

A probe headed up by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey has discovered that surveillance footage from Amazon’s Ring devices is being provided to law enforcement agencies without warrants or the consent (or knowledge) of device owners, with at least 11 incidents recorded by the company this year.

The Ring Doorbell is the most popular home video monitoring device in the US, selling at a clip of over a million units per year in recent years and holding about 40% of the video doorbell market. The system is sometimes described by privacy advocates as the “biggest corporate-owned surveillance network in the United States” due to its growing ubiquity in neighborhoods. Amazon purchased the company in 2018 for $1 billion and it has already generated controversy for several facets of its operation during this time, from its “Neighbors” app for sharing surveillance footage to incidents of camera hacking.

Surveillance footage provided regardless of user preferences when agencies submit “emergency requests”

Ring boasts of its partnerships with many law enforcement agencies around the country, but users are supposed to be able to opt out of having their surveillance footage accessed by these agencies. Law enforcement can get around this restriction by filing emergency requests that involve “imminent danger,” and Amazon says that it has granted 11 of these requests thus far this year.

Amazon was pressed into revealing this information as part of a probe conducted by Senator Markey, a longtime critic of the company who first began airing concerns about Ring privacy issues and law enforcement access in late 2019. Responding to a letter that Markey sent in June, Amazon said that it does not regularly share surveillance footage with law enforcement but may do so in an “exigent or emergency circumstance” in which a request is made based on belief that there is “imminent danger” of serious injury or death. The company said that it consults federal law in responding to these requests and has granted 11 this year on the basis of determining that imminent danger of such injury was involved. The company did not elaborate on these incidents or which agencies were given access to consumer surveillance footage.

The letter also raised the issue of backdoor law enforcement access to user surveillance footage that is shared via the Neighbors app, which allows Ring users in specific areas to communicate about potential suspicious activity in their neighborhood. Amazon says that law enforcement agencies are “encouraged” to use the Neighbors “Request For Assistance” feature, which allows them to post requests in relevant neighborhoods and ask users to share footage with them voluntarily. This change was made in mid-2021, with law enforcement previously able to directly email Ring users to request footage from them. Some localities have implemented “community camera registration programs” that critics say are designed to step around restrictions imposed by device manufacturers such as these.

Some other interesting pieces of information were revealed by the letter. The amount of law enforcement agencies partnered with Ring nationwide has grown to 2,161, up from just 400 in 2019. Ring also refused to commit to enabling end-to-end encryption of stored surveillance footage and disabling audio by default, saying that doing so would limit features for non-technical users that might not explore the settings. The company also gave a cagey answer regarding whether it might include voice recognition technology at some point in the future.

Law enforcement agency access to video doorbells increases despite improved privacy settings

While Ring users have been given enhanced privacy settings, the overall access of law enforcement to these surveillance footage systems has greatly increased.

The Amazon letter only addresses warrantless requests. Separate data released by the company indicates that it received over 3,100 legal demands in 2021, up from 1,900 in 2020. 85% of these were search warrants. Ring says that about 40% of these requests involve turning over user personal information in addition to the requested surveillance footage. Ring is supposed to notify users when this happens, unless prevented by a secrecy order.

In addition to the search warrants and other legal demands, Amazon received over 2,700 “preservation orders” last year. These are requests to retain surveillance footage in a user’s account for six months as the agency prepares to request a court order. Amazon is not legally obligated to comply with these requests, but did not release information on how many of them it cooperated on.

In spite of the apparent attention to user privacy, Ring continues to aggressively pursue new relationships with law enforcement agencies; a 2021 report found that Ring provided Los Angeles police officers with free and discounted products in return for pitching their services to colleagues, and since 2019 has been known to approach police departments in areas with rising crime with free samples and targeted sales campaigns. According to a spokesperson in an email, “We stopped donating to law enforcement and encouraging police to promote our products years ago.” Ring ended its Pillar Program in 2019.

“#Lawenforcement can get around Ring’s #privacy restrictions by filing emergency requests that involve ‘imminent danger,’ and Amazon says that it has granted 11 of these requests thus far this year. #surveillance #respectdataClick to Tweet

Senator Markey has also previously criticized the language Amazon uses in communications with Ring customers regarding law enforcement agencies, saying that they use “targeted” and “encouraging” wording to nudge users toward voluntarily sharing surveillance footage.

Update (July 27, 2022): Included comment from Ring spokesperson.

Senior Correspondent at CPO Magazine