Congress Wants to See All of Ring's Law Enforcement Agreements

Lawmakers want to understand Ring's relationship with the police

Why This Matters: The Committee on Oversight and Reform’s request pits Ring’s narrative of neighborhood safety against the same neighborhood’s inherent right to privacy. What the subcommittee discovers, if Ring complies, could tell us much about what law enforcement knows about hour homes and the activity around them. That information will either be comforting or deeply disturbing.

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A U.S. House of Representative Subcommittee demanded on Thursday details on exactly how the Ring video doorbell company (wholly owned by Amazon) is working with hundreds of police departments around the country. It has until March 4 to comply with six major requests and dozens of sub-requests.

Behind the scenes: Thanks to Ring and video doorbell systems like it, your Amazon orders are probably safer than they might be without it. On the other hand, these cameras are always on, sending mini updates about virtually all noticed activity. Understanding the power of that data, Ring created the Neighborhood app and program which allows users to alert others in their neighborhood of potential crimes, even sharing video directly from their Ring devices to other users and the police.

Who are your friends? At the same time, Ring has partnered with law enforcement across the country to help coordinate crime surveillance and response. The data the police get is shared when customers choose to do so. However, sometimes, police and other government agencies can request access to this video data. In other words, things are about as clear as the live feed from a too-dirty door cam.

We have questions: Written by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, the request for documentation was delivered to Amazon on February 19. It requested all agreements between Ring (Amazon) and cities, law enforcement, and neighborhood watch groups. They also want a list of agencies that have access to the Neighbors Portal and all instances where agencies have requested access to Ring video data. The subcommittee also wants to examine current and past Terms of Service and Privacy notices and all documentation relating to Ring’s integration of facial recognition technology.

Help us understand: The Committee, which says it has the authority to investigate any matter and any time, is essentially trying to learn why law enforcement has entered into these agreements with Ring and why, for example, these same agencies aren’t allowed to speak publicly about the terms of the agreements. As the request notes, “In one instance, Ring is reported to have edited a police department press release to remove the word ‘surveillance.’”

Yes, but… At the crux of all these questions is how Ring is either enhancing our safety or gradually, and with law enforcement’s help, chipping away at our privacy. It’s worth remembering that much of what Ring does in the neighborhood space is opt-in. You can own a Ring without using the service.

So What: The request for information is unlikely to lead to any immediate action by either the subcommittee (if they get it all on the 4th) or Ring and Amazon. But the intent is clear: More oversight over what these tech giants are doing with our information. As Ring prepares to comply or deny the subcommittee’s request, it might be worth remembering what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told me last year about his perspective on tech regulation:

“There’s a role for good regulations on this area [and it] would be very welcomed by all the players. I think it makes a lot of sense for there to be some standards in how all this works. That kind of stability would probably be healthy for the whole industry.”

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