Ring, the home security company Amazon bought in 2018, has been criticized by more than 30 civil rights organizations for arranging secretive deals with hundreds of police departments across the country. In a letter sent in September, US senator Edward Markey (D–Massachussets), said the partnerships “could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities.” But those concerns are not changing Amazon’s approach to selling Ring’s products—in fact, quite the opposite.
In an interview at the annual CES conference in Las Vegas this week, Amazon’s top hardware executive said he’s proud of the program, believes the partnerships with police departments are good for neighborhoods, and hinted at a future in which Ring cameras could use Amazon’s facial recognition technology—a scenario that some of Ring’s critics have already expressed concerns about.
Dave Limp, chief of Amazon devices and services, says Ring has partnered with well over 400 police and fire departments around the US and that he’s a “big fan” of the devices’ ability to boost community policing efforts.
“I’m proud of that program, and I think we’ll continue to do it. If anything we’re putting more resources on it,” Limp said. When asked what those additional resources entail, Limp said the company is actively trying to get more police departments and fire departments to ink partnerships with the company.
Ring gives law enforcement officials access to a portal where they can ask camera owners to provide footage that may be relevant to criminal investigations in their neighborhood. Officials can also interact with residents on Ring’s community app, Neighbors. Police don’t need a warrant to send a request, and Ring users aren’t under any legal obligation to hand over their recordings in the program—though Ring hasn’t always reminded customers of that fact.
The company seems to have considered some of these concerns with its recently announced Control Center, which the company says will “enable you to opt out of receiving video requests in areas where local police have joined the Neighbors app.” Some form of these controls existed before, but later this month it will be available in Ring’s iOS and Android apps, the idea being it will be more accessible to customers. “I think it adds a lot of value, and it’s built in such a way that customers either can opt out or say no to it [entirely],” Limp said.
In an interview with WIRED, Limp drew a comparison between the use of Ring for neighborhood surveillance and less-technical means of information sharing around crimes. “If there was a crime in your neighborhood; if somebody broke into the car in front of your house and the police department knocked on your door and said, ‘Did you see anybody?’ you can either say ‘No, I don’t want to cooperate with you’ or ‘I want to participate in this,’” Limp said. “It’s no different than that. And it has the same capabilities that it would if you went door to door and knocked on neighbors’ [doors], with the exception that it can be there more often than the neighbor might be there.”
Critics of Ring and similar surveillance devices disagree, and some privacy advocates, including ACLU chapters, have argued that these partnerships risk creating a new kind of surveillance infrastructure without proper oversight. Others worry about the impact of these networks to the rights of marginalized communities in particular.
Limp acknowledged that Amazon would be concerned if the technology were to contribute to inaccurate identifications of people captured on camera. That’s been the concern with not just Ring but also the usage of security cameras more broadly, especially as more of them begin to include facial recognition software. In some cases, the facial recognition technology may be built directly into a camera, as it is with Google’s Nest security camera. In other cases, municipalities may be utilizing other technology—such as Amazon’s Rekognition product—to extract data even if the security cameras themselves aren’t the most sophisticated.
When asked whether Amazon had considered applying facial recognition software technology to Ring cameras, Limp pointed out that Amazon hasn’t released anything yet, despite competitors offering the technology. But, ultimately, he said, “Yeah—we explore lots of technologies. We want to look at a lot of different things that could add value to customers.”
“When you talk about things like AI and facial recognition, you have to do it in such a way that you feel good about the features,” he added. “In this case we haven’t led on facial recognition because we wanted to be cautious.”
He also noted that Amazon has called for legislation around facial recognition systems. In September, CEO Jeff Bezos told a group of reporters, including those from WIRED, that the company was drafting its own set of laws around facial recognition technology that it planned to share with lawmakers. Such technology is still largely unregulated, and studies have found that even top-performing systems misidentify black people at much higher rates than white people.