IF YOU WALK through your local neighborhood—providing you live in a reasonably large town or city—you’ll be caught on camera. Government CCTV cameras may record your stroll, but it is increasingly likely that you’ll also be captured by one of your neighbors’ security cameras or doorbells. It’s even more likely that the camera will be made by Ring, the doorbell and security camera firm owned by Amazon.
Since Amazon splashed out more than a billion dollars for the company in 2018, Ring’s security products have exploded in popularity. Ring has simultaneously drawn controversy for making deals (and sharing data) with thousands of police departments, helping expand and normalize suburban surveillance, and falling to a string of hacks. While the cameras can provide homeowners with reassurance that their property is secure, critics say the systems also run the risk of reinforcing racism and racial profiling and eroding people’s privacy.
Videos shared from security cameras and internet-connected doorbells have also become common on platforms like Facebook and TikTok, raking in millions of views. “Ring impacts everybody’s privacy,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Most immediately, it impacts the people who walk down the streets every day, where the cameras are pointing out.”
While Ring is far from the only maker of smart doorbells and cameras—Google’s Nest line is another popular option—its connections to law enforcement have drawn the most criticism, as when it recently handed over data without warrants. So, what exactly does Ring collect and know about you?
Ring gets your name, phone number, email and postal address, and any other information you provide to it—such as payment information or your social media handles if you link your Ring account to Facebook, for instance. The company also gets information about your Wi-Fi network and its signal strength, and it knows you named your camera “Secret CIA Watchpoint,” as well as all the other technical changes you make to your cameras or doorbells.
In March 2020, a BBC information request revealed that Ring keeps detailed records of people’s doorbell activity. Every doorbell press was logged. Each motion the camera detected was stored. And details were saved every time someone zoomed in on footage on their phone. In just 129 days, 4906 actions were recorded. (Ring says it does not sell people’s data.)
Ring can also collect the video and audio your camera records—the system doesn’t record all the time, but it can be triggered when it senses movement. Ring says its cameras can detect movement “up to 155 degrees horizontally” and across distances of up to 25 feet. This means there’s a good chance cameras can be triggered by people walking down the street or pick up conversations of passersby. According to tests by Consumer Reports, some Ring cameras can record audio from about 20 feet away.
Jolynn Dellinger, a senior lecturing fellow focusing on privacy and ethics at Duke University’s school of law, says recording audio when someone is on the street is a “serious problem” for privacy and may change how people behave. “We operate with a sense of obscurity, even in public,” Dellinger says. “We are in danger of increasing surveillance of everyday life in a way that is not consistent with either our expected views or really what’s best for society.” In October 2021, a British woman won a court case that said her neighbor’s Ring cameras, which overlooked her house and garden, broke data laws.
Ring can also keep videos shared to its Neighbors’ app—an app where people and law enforcement agencies can share alerts about “crimes” and post their videos of what is happening around the homes. (There are rules about what people are allowed to post.)
While Ring’s privacy policies apply to those who purchase its devices, people who are captured in footage or audio don’t have a chance to agree to them. “Privacy, security, and customer control are foundational to Ring, and we take the protection of our customers’ personal and account information seriously,” Rall says.
Ultimately, you agree to give Ring permission to control the “content” you share—including audio and video—while you own the intellectual property to it. The company’s terms of service say you give it an “unlimited, irrevocable, fee free and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right” to store, use, copy, or modify content you share through Neighbors or elsewhere online. (Audio recording can be turned off in Ring’s settings.)
“When I went out to buy a security camera last year, I looked for ones only that did local storage,” says Jen Caltrider, the lead researcher on Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included, which evaluates the privacy and security of products. Caltrider says people should try to keep as much control of their data as possible and not store files in the cloud unless they need to. “I don’t want any company having this data that I can’t control. I want to be able to control it.”
Ring’s deals with police forces—both in the US and the UK—have proved controversial. For years, the company has partnered with law enforcement agencies, providing them with cameras and doorbells that can be given to residents. By the start of 2021, Ring had partnered with more than 2,000 US law enforcement and fire departments. Documents have shown how Ring also controls the public messaging of police departments it has partnered with. “There is nothing mandating Ring build a tool that is easily accessible and helpful to police,” Guariglia says.
Rings’ terms of service say that the company may “access, use, preserve and/or disclose” videos and audio to “law enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or third parties” if it is legally required to do so or needs to in order to enforce its terms of service or address security issues. Government officials could include any “regulatory agency or legislative committee that issues a legally binding request for information,” Rall says. For the six months between January and June 2022, Ring says it had more than 3,500 law enforcement requests in the US.
In December 2021, researchers at New York University’s (NYU) Policing Project released an audit of Ring’s relationship with law enforcement and the way its Neighbors app works. (Ring provided data to the audit’s authors about how the service functions.) The report details concerns that Ring could exacerbate police bias against Black and brown communities and notes a lack of transparency around how Neighbors works.
“We see a lot of risk in having police responding to calls about homeless people or low-level drug use,” says Max Isaacs, a staff attorney with the Policing Project and a coauthor of the audit. “When police are relying on private devices like Ring devices, it creates a democratic deficit, because now police can greatly expand their surveillance capabilities,” Isaacs says. Citizen-on-citizen surveillance, which Isaacs calls “lateral surveillance,” lacks scrutiny. “They can have thousands of cameras in a jurisdiction … without any legislative oversight.”
In response to the NYU audit, Ring said it made more than 100 changes to its service. These changes hint at how the app may have previously been misused by law enforcement agencies. Police are now required to use official accounts to request content about crimes, Ring will not donate devices to law enforcement bodies, and it will “no longer will participate in police sting operations.”
Ring also agreed to stop citing the impact its cameras have on crime—previous claims say it reduces crime in areas—until that has been verified by an independent study. “Ring also reviewed all of its marketing and social media materials to remove any claims about crime reduction,” the report says. The change that will do most to protect people’s privacy may be the introduction of end-to-end encryption, which means the company can’t access recordings of users who have the feature enabled. However, it isn’t turned on by default. Here’s how to turn it on.
Update 10:30 am ET, 8-5-22: Ring spokesperson Sarah Rall’s statement that the company “would provide additional notice or get permission as needed” pertains to other ways Ring may use your personal information, not to its data-retention policies.