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Ring's new home security feature: Virtual security guards?

The feature is invite-only this year, but Ring plans to expand it in 2022.

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Ring

Ring has unveiled a new subscription service that'll let you hire what the company calls "virtual security guards" to monitor your outdoor camera feeds. The announcement came during the Amazon fall hardware event Tuesday.

Using the Virtual Security Guard feature, you'll be able to select individual Ring cameras for monitoring by a selected third-party company. RapidResponse is the first provider on board, and it'll charge about $100 per month, but Alana Abbitt-McGregor, Ring's director of product for subscriptions, told me more are on the way.

"The goal is to launch with multiple providers," said Abbitt-McGregor, "the customer can pick what provider works best for them. We can have more optionality, more price options, different variants of the service, depending on what [customers] need the most."

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Here's how the feature works: When your Ring Alarm system is armed and an outdoor camera detects motion, the monitoring company will receive an alert. An agent will identify the motion and respond appropriately, based on the camera's live view -- whether it's something benign, like a package delivery or someone walking a dog, or something more troubling, like a person looking into windows or committing a crime.

Ring's approach to privacy has drawn heavy criticism in the past two years (for more, read my in-depth analysis of its current policies), and the company seems to be aware of the ways this new feature could expose users to more privacy problems and appears to be trying to address issues along the way.

"We want to ensure that our customers understand exactly the choices they're making with respect to which cameras they're enrolling, and understand any privacy and other implications that may be related to that," said Ring President Leila Rouhi. That's why the feature will be available only for powered outdoor cameras to start.

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Ring's powered, outdoor cameras will be the first ones compatible with the Virtual Security Guard feature.

Chris Monroe/CNET

You'll have to sign up for the feature on Ring's website, select which cameras you want monitored and customize privacy zones. In short, the process won't be simple enough to activate that you could do so accidentally. In addition, the service is kept entirely unconnected from the Neighbors app, a platform that lets you share footage from Ring cameras and doorbells publicly.

Agents are also constrained in how they can access footage; Ring says they can't view or initiate any activity when the alarm system is disarmed, likely to avoid the sort of controversy security giant ADT faced last year when a technician was found to be spying on customer camera feeds.

"Ring provides the back-end of the service ... so that we can control the software," Abbitt-McGregor told me. "We designed the tool so [agents] can't download, they can't share, they can't store videos. Only the cameras that are updated and eligible to be watched, the customer controls when they're watched, what field of view that the agents have. And [agents] can't select who to monitor ... It's entirely randomized, and Ring is monitoring the agent activity within the tool."

How the people monitoring videos respond will also be tightly controlled.

"It's mostly about de-escalation," said Abbitt-McGregor.

Agents will attend a multiweek "intensive" course, along with antibias training, to start -- and will undergo regular background checks and audits. Once they begin working, when prompted with a randomly assigned video, they'll respond according to a series of guidelines, dismissing benign alerts.

"In cases of escalation," explained Abbitt-McGregor, "they'll do two-way talk to announce ... they're monitoring. If the person doesn't leave or they continue their unwanted behavior [the agent] can sound the siren. So they're trying to do things to make sure that people ... understand they're being watched, as well as stop what they're doing ... However if it truly escalates to an emergency ... we can dispatch EMS."

If an agent dispatches emergency services, which Abbitt-McGregor said will happen only if there's a medical emergency or a clear crime being committed, people connected to the Ring account in question will also receive alerts.

At the suggestion of Ring representatives, I spoke about the new feature with Pam Dixon, founder and executive director of the nonprofit World Privacy Forum. She was hopeful about its potential.

"I like the [antibias] training. I want it to become an industry best practice," Dixon told me. "I like that it's opt-in. I like the background checks. I like the auditing and the transparency. Those are good things."

Dixon said she'd feel nervous if the feature was ever expanded to include indoor video devices, but she thinks that in its current form it provides helpful and useful security measures.

Ring has opened applications for the feature. The plan is to enroll invite-only users by the end of this year, before expanding nationally next year, depending on the feedback the company receives during that pilot phase.

At Tuesday's event, Amazon also announced the Ring Alarm ProAmazon Blink, a new custom alerts feature and more.