Ring’s new policy limits police access to user videos, but loopholes remain
Amazon-owned Ring, which specializes in selling doorbells and home security cameras, has announced that it will no longer allow police to use its app to search for potential informants. Previously, law enforcement could ask members of the public congregating on Ring’s Neighbors app to send in video clips that could potentially help in crime investigations.
So has Ring made a real pivot to privacy, and what prompted the shift?
Ring and US law enforcement: hand-in-glove with each other
Ring and the US law enforcement have always been bedfellows, and the company’s mission statement: “Make neighborhoods safer” has always presupposed a close cooperation with the police.
Until 2021, Ring allowed police to
slide into users’ DMs message users privately and request video clips from them. The practice was frowned upon as being opaque and a fertile ground for overreach, with civil rights groups arguing that the police were abusing their access to footage to racially profile minorities.
As the backlash mounted, Ring changed course, and shut off users’ DMs to law enforcement. Starting in 2021, police would still be able to request footage from Ring users, but they would have to do so in a public forum — namely, through public posts in the Neighbors app’s feed in a special category called “Request for Assistance” and on the department’s public profile. This was hardly a sea change, but it was a welcome step towards greater transparency.
Fast forward to 2022, and Ring confirmed that it could also grant police direct access to private video data without user consent or a warrant in the event of an “emergency.” Ring revealed that it had granted 11 such requests that year alone. To make such a request, police must fill out a two-page form and explain who is in “imminent danger” of either death or bodily harm, and why they do not have enough time to obtain a warrant. Still, it can be argued that the definition of emergency is rather loose and generally open to interpretation. Ring’s admission that it allows warrantless searches of its devices earned it some bad press and highlighted the privacy issues for which Ring and its parent company, Amazon, have long been notorious.
Ring’s privacy record and reputation were further tarnished by its settlement with the FTC in May 2023. The US regulator fined Ring $5.8 million and prohibited it from profiting from “unlawfully accessing consumer videos.” As part of its investigation, the FTC discovered that it was possible for Ring employees to access any user footage they liked. Thus, for instance, one employee was found to “have viewed thousands of video recordings belonging to female users of Ring cameras that surveilled intimate spaces in their homes such as their bathrooms or bedrooms” over a several-month period.
In a statement on January 24, Ring announced that it was disabling the Request for Assistance (RFA). It means that although police and fire departments would still be able to post safety tips and updates, they would not be able to ask users for video clips and receive them through the Neighbors app interface.
This week, we are also sunsetting the Request for Assistance (RFA) tool. Public safety agencies like fire and police departments can still use the Neighbors app to share helpful safety tips, updates, and community events. They will no longer be able to use the RFA tool to request and receive video in the app. Public safety agency posts are still public, and will be available for users to view on the Neighbors app feed and on the agency’s profile.
Does this policy change puts an end to warrantless video requests?
As much as we wanted it to be so, this is not happening.
One channel closes, others still open
Ring’s decision to stop facilitating warrantless police requests through the app is a step toward greater transparency and privacy. However, this move, although commendable, hardly impacts the surveillance state.
It will likely result in law enforcement switching to other ways to request help from Ring users. After all, it’s still possible to contact the same people outside of the app, though it may take a little more time and effort to track them down.
Commenting on Ring’s new policy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pointed out that there is nothing stopping police from approaching Ring users in person or on social media and convincing them to hand over the footage without a warrant under some well-intentioned pretext. In this case, the users should be aware that it is in their right to refuse such requests with no repercussions.
The other deeply problematic issue is that Ring is not doing away with the policy of “emergency” requests for assistance, which it will apparently continue to meet going forward. The grounds for such warrantless requests are shaky and not much is known about the circumstances under which they had been granted before apart from what the police chose to include in their reports.
Therefore, we advise users to not meet requests from police to hand over their private videodata if they do not want to without a warrant, because such requests are essentially lawless. Users should also be aware of the potential privacy risks of having cameras in and around their homes, and take steps to secure their devices and data.
Ring may have taken a step in the right direction, but, in the grand scheme of things, it might not have a major impact on the protection of civil liberties and personal information, so it’s way too early to celebrate.