You shared Ring footage with police. They may share it, too

Videos captured by Amazon's video doorbell company that are handed over to the police are fair game to be shared with other law enforcement agencies.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
7 min read

Ring and police do not inform residents that the footage they send in can be shared with other agencies.

Chris Monroe/CNET

In more than 100 tweets over the last week, Ring told people that police only had videos with full consent from its millions of users. But while you might be giving permission to your local police department to see footage that could help solve a neighborhood crime, once police have it, your Ring video potentially echoes on forever.

Internal documents from Ring reviewed by CNET show that police are allowed to pass Ring videos around to other law enforcement agencies and keep the clips for as long as they wish -- two factors that privacy advocates fear could lead to a new type of database using footage from people's doorsteps.

More than 405 police departments have partnered with Amazon's Ring and its Neighbors program, which the company markets as a "digital neighborhood watch," with police encouraging people to buy Amazon's video doorbell and sign up for the app. In some towns, local governments have used taxpayer money to offer discounts of up to $125 for Amazon's products. 

Ring's cameras have helped police solve major crimes, including the capture of an escaped fugitive in Tennessee. Police departments have lauded the Neighbors app, essentially a social network where people post footage for nearby residents to watch, as a valuable tool, and Ring founder Jamie Siminoff has highlighted its benefits, pointing out that it's helped recover stolen guns and stop delivery thefts. 

But the company, which Amazon bought for nearly $1 billion in 2018, has privacy advocates concerned that it's helping local police create surveillance networks in residential communities and giving them a massive platform potentially open to abuse. 

Ring maintains that the videos can only be shared with police through an owner's consent or a subpoena. But people sharing footage may not be fully aware of all the information they're providing. In video requests obtained by CNET, Ring doesn't tell people that police are able to share received footage with other agencies. That detail is also missing from Ring's FAQ

The requests also don't tell people that police can store the provided videos indefinitely, long after a criminal case has been resolved. Footage from Ring is supposed to expire within 60 days, but once it's sent to police, it can live on forever, internal documents show. Videos posted on Neighbors also remain beyond the 60-day limit, and anybody can save those videos indefinitely.

The video requests do tell residents that if they share footage with police, Ring will give officers the person's contact information and physical address, but that disclosure is tucked away in the fine print at the bottom of the requests.

"It is not in the interest of Ring or the police department to actually show or tell the consumer that information," said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing and a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Ring declined to comment on the record about how its videos may be shared by police.

Watch this: Police have your Ring footage. They're not the only ones looking at it

Share Ring

Ring doesn't discuss this publicly, but police are able to share the videos they get from customers with other law enforcement agencies. 

In a marketing email sent from Ring to the Chula Vista, California, police department in May 2018, the outreach coordinator wrote to police, "Videos can also be shared amongst other agencies to support information sharing." 

Privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur found another marketing email from March sent to police in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, highlighting four agencies in Kansas that had come "together as a team to create safer communities." 

Ring's law enforcement policy guide sent to partnered police departments, however, states that using the video doorbell's resources to "assist another agency in their investigation is generally discouraged."

But it's still allowed. Once Ring footage ends up with police, it's considered evidence and out of the company's control. 

"What Ring is doing is recognizing that other police departments can help them gain customers and gain market share in this race to be the leading provider of surveillance cameras," Ferguson said. "This is more of a business strategy than a policing strategy." 

But CVPD investigations Captain Phil Collum said neighboring police departments frequently work together and share evidence to solve crimes. The CVPD doesn't tell Ring owners when their footage is distributed. 

"The details of criminal investigations, including communications between participating law enforcement agencies, are usually kept confidential to protect the sanctity of investigation," Collum said in an email. "When agencies share information, we do not routinely share that information with the general public." 

Ring's smart doorbell keeps a close eye on your house

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There are times when it makes sense to coordinate resources between departments. Collum noted that crimes aren't always limited to one town, and evidence can help solve cases in multiple communities.

"Simply put, public safety entities work together to solve local and regional crimes," he said. "Video evidence provided to the police department is no different, no matter the platform or medium that was used to provide it." 

Police in Olathe, Kansas, agreed that sharing footage with other law enforcement agencies is a necessary tool in solving cases. Sgt. Joel Yeldell, the department's public information officer, said Neighbors has made it easier to request footage from people. 

"The point of it all is to ease access within your own community, there's time saved with officers," Yeldell said. 

Critics, however, point out that while Ring says people are consenting to give police videos from outside their homes, they aren't seeing the full scope of what police are actually getting. 

While police have always shared intelligence with other agencies to help solve crimes, with Ring the vast amount of data offers an unprecedented level of access.

"As long as there have been law enforcement agencies, they have talked with each other and shared evidence, and that can be good policing," said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. "The problem in the digital age is that if law enforcement agencies are able to amass that data and trade it back and forth with no friction, it creates potential for a massive privacy violation."

Or the sharing could go beyond other police departments. 

"A Ring user who hands over footage to police can still have their footage be sent to ICE and used as evidence for deportation," Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst Matthew Guariglia said. "You might think the camera on your porch has nothing to do with the immigration fight from far away, but in fact, they do." 

Police in both Chula Vista and Olathe said they haven't provided Ring footage to any federal agencies since the partnership began, and CNET hasn't found any instances of this happening or of Ring partnering with federal agencies. 

ICE declined to comment on whether it's ever used or requested Ring footage from any of the other 400-plus police departments that are partnered with the company.

"Like other federal law enforcement agencies, ICE generally does not discuss specific details pertaining to investigative methods the agency may or may not employ in the course of its duties," a spokesman said in an email. 

But the agency has often tapped private technology companies and local police departments for its deportation efforts. In March, the ACLU found that the agency used driver location data provided by police license plate readers for deportation. 

Ingredients for a database

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A video request email from police in Illinois asked for seven hours of footage, and did not note anywhere that officers could share the footage with other agencies.

Shreyas Gandlur / FOIA

When police request footage from Ring users, it's often for crimes that happen within minutes. These are incidents like burglaries, car thefts and package stealing. 

Despite that small window of actual evidence, many requests from police cast a wide net, sometimes asking for clips from over 12 hours. 

These wide-ranging requests go directly against Ring's policy guide, which tells police they should "narrow the scope of the video request."

Ring owners are allowed to edit and choose which clips from that portion they want, but in some cases of video requests, the phrasing asked for the entire time range. 

In two requests from the Bensenville police in July, it wrote to Ring users: "By choosing to share your Ring videos, the Bensenville Police Department will receive all of your video recordings in the requested time frame, along with your email address and physical address."
It wasn't until August that the language changed to tell people "police will only receive select video recordings from the requested time frame."

"People may think that they are sharing certain footage for a very particular purpose like a criminal investigation, but these cameras obviously capture lots of details about their own patterns of life," Wessler said. "As they arrive and leave their house, as they do things in their yard." 

Ring's law enforcement policy guide states that videos obtained through the portal are "stored in the cloud indefinitely." 

This raises the possibility of police departments potentially using that obtained footage to build out their own facial recognition database. While Ring has denied that it plans on using Amazon's Rekognition to build that tool in house, the company doesn't put limits on how police can combine sent footage and algorithms. Police in Hammond, Indiana, have already described the ability to combine Ring footage with automated license plate readers to scan cars passing by people's homes. 

BuzzFeed News reported last week that Ring was working on facial recognition in Ukraine.  

As officers are allowed to store Ring videos they've received forever and share them with other agencies, privacy advocates worry it creates the potential for abuse by police departments.

They have reason to voice their concerns. In 2016, the Associated Press reported that police across the US were abusing law enforcement databases to get sensitive information on romantic partners and neighbors in non-criminal investigations -- one of several examples in which police officers used their resources for unofficial reasons. 

"Any time you have a law enforcement agency asking for your footage or data on your phone for a specific reason that they cite to you, the potential for that to be used for other means always exists," Guariglia said.