Dec 16, 2021 - Technology

Policing Project audit of Ring doorbells prompts changes

Photo illustration of a Ring doorbell camera

Photo: Ring

Ring, the Amazon-owned doorbell and security camera device, now works with 2,000 police departments across the country. But the footage downloaded by those agencies is less than one might expect, according to a new audit from New York University's Policing Project.

Why it matters: The company has come under fire for a number of practices including its privacy policies, economic relationships with police agencies and its role in helping create and grow the surveillance state.

Details: Ring first approached the Policing Project to conduct the audit in 2020, focusing on the racial justice, civil rights and civil liberties implications.

  • The Policing Project's 43-page report says the police agencies working with Ring downloaded less than 100 hours of videos shared by camera owners so far this year. This comes out to fewer than 8,000 video clips downloaded, the project says.
  • The report also breaks down the types of crimes for which law enforcement agencies requested video footage. More than half were for some type of robbery and 16 percent for a shooting or homicide.

Between the lines: Ring has made a number of changes during and in the wake of the audit. Among the most notable are:

  • Temporarily halting recruitment of additional police agencies to bring on other agencies that can provide non-policing services, such as homeless outreach.
  • Requiring police agencies to specify a specific offense under investigation when seeking video.
  • Limiting its own collaborations with law enforcement by no longer donating devices or participating in police sting operations. Ring also says it won't work with federal law enforcement agencies.

The big picture: The report focuses on Ring, but also talks extensively about how governments need to address government use of private surveillance technologies.

  • "If a policing agency sought to create a network of cameras... it would be the subject of much political debate," the report notes. "But when police crowdsource from private devices, they can achieve surveillance with no cost, no public debate, and no public approval."

Yes, but: Farhang Heydari, executive director of the Policing Project, notes that there are far more companies with cameras without clear policies regarding sharing data with law enforcement.

  • "I’m not saying they do everything perfect," Heydari said. "But at least we know what they do."
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