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Amazon's Ring wanted to use 911 calls to activate its video doorbells

The company worked with police and cities to build in this real-time feature, emails showed.

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Ring wanted 911 calls to activate its doorbells.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Ring considered building a tool that would use calls to the 911 emergency number to automatically activate the video cameras on its smart doorbells, according to emails obtained by CNET. The Amazon-owned company isn't currently working on the project, but it told a California police department in August 2018 that the function could be introduced in the "not-so-distant future."

In the emails, Ring described a system in which a 911 call would trigger the cameras on Ring doorbells near the site of the call. The cameras would start recording and streaming video that police could then use to investigate an incident. Owners of the Ring devices would have to opt in to the system, the emails said.

"Currently, our cameras record based on motion alerts," Steve Sebestyen, vice president of business development for Ring, said in an email that CNET obtained through a public records request. "However, we are working with interested agencies and cities to expand the device owners controls to allow for situations where a CFS [call-for-service] event triggers recording within the proximity of an event."

It's unclear how long Ring had contemplated this idea and how many cities it proposed this plan to, but the project is no longer being pursued.

"Ring is always looking to innovate on behalf of our customers to make our neighborhoods better, safer places to live," a spokesperson said. "However, not all ideas make it to development. Privacy, security and user control will always be paramount when Ring considers applying any new technology to its business."

Ring's interest in a 911 activation system comes amid growing concerns about its partnerships with close to 470 police departments across the US. Privacy advocates warn that the company, which Amazon bought for $839 million last year, is helping police build a surveillance network in residential neighborhoods

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The concern about the use of Ring's cameras by police is one element in mounting criticism that technology companies aren't adequately protecting privacy. Amazon may address such complaints on Wednesday, when it hosts its annual product event in Seattle.

Ring has repeatedly asserted that its cameras aren't a live feed to the police, saying law enforcement can't see recordings unless they request them from owners via Ring's Neighbors app or subpoena the company. Neighbors is a Ring-created neighborhood watch app that lets residents and police post crime alerts, as well as footage from the video doorbells. 

The company's emails with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, however, suggest Ring had looked into a system that could operate in an almost real-time manner. 

Last month, Gizmodo reported that Ring had already been obtaining live 911 call data from police departments. The company said at the time it was using the 911 data to provide crime alerts in the Neighbors app. 

Ring can obtain 911 information even if police decline to provide it. In emails, the company said it also gets that data from makers of computer-aided dispatch software, which call operators use to send officers to emergencies, as well as public data records.

Ring's police ties

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Ring's map of police partnerships shows nearly 470 law enforcement agencies have signed up.

Ring

Ring's police partnerships have raised concerns among privacy and civil rights advocates because the company provides surveillance tools to law enforcement without much public input. The company doesn't take responsibility for what happens with footage once Ring owners send clips to police. 

Police officers have discussed their ability to use artificial intelligence like facial recognition and license plate readers with Ring footage. 

The company has instructed partnering police departments that they shouldn't share surveillance details with the public, as well as influenced what officers can and can't say in press releases about the video doorbells.

Privacy and civil rights advocates also worry that Ring's involvement has given it too much influence in policing.

"You have a tech company that seems hellbent on becoming indispensable to law enforcement," Fight for the Future's Deputy Director Evan Greer said. "That raises a ton of concerns."

Ring supporters see that close relationship as a benefit, pointing out that the video doorbells can provide evidence for solving burglaries, package thefts and home invasions. Footage from Ring doorbells helped police catch an escaped fugitive in Tennessee and investigate a homicide in Texas

Those benefits, however, come at a cost to privacy. Entire neighborhoods have been blanketed with Ring cameras, sometimes paid for with taxpayer money

Ring it on

The sheriff's department in San Diego County joined Ring's network in February, after several months of negotiations with the company. 

Included in the negotiations was a request from Ring for real-time 911 call data from the sheriff's department, which serves more than 3 million people across 4,200 square miles. Ring also asked the law enforcement agency to install code on its dispatch systems that could pull real-time information on 911 calls for burglaries, car break-ins, robberies, shots fired, shootings, stabbings and hostage situations, according to an email obtained by CNET. 

Ryan Stewart, the county sheriff's department's crime and intelligence manager, said it couldn't provide real-time data, telling the video doorbell company that it didn't even share that data with other law enforcement agencies in the county. 

"Problem is if we share it with Ring, then we have to share it with every other company out there that wants it, and that's not something we're quite comfortable doing at this point," Stewart wrote in an email to Ring. 

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department didn't respond to requests for comment.

Though the department denied Ring's request, it suggested other ways Ring could obtain the data. It noted that police in San Diego had partnered with public data services for 911 calls. Such data would help Ring post alerts on its Neighbors app but wouldn't help develop the activation tool because it isn't real time.

Sebeysten said that most of Ring's police partners provide computer-aided dispatch data with 10- to 30-minute delays. The Ring executive said the company was open to providing development or funding for police departments to build out a dispatch program that they could share. 

"Imagine a scenario where a 911 call for a home invasion automatically triggers all nearby neighborhood cameras to wake up and start recording/streaming to aid first responders and investigators," Sebestyen said.

He also noted that Ring owners would need to opt in to the automatic activation upon 911 calls, before the plan was called off. Unlike other Ring video requests that require residents to give permission each time, the opt-in would have provided blanket permission for police to see footage any time the cameras are activated by 911 calls.

"One of the major concerns that Ring has been reassuring about is that there would be no real-time watching from authorities on your doorbell," Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst Matthew Guariglia said. "And now that comes with a caveat. If they opt in to this program, that control is stripped away from them any time there's a 911 call in their vicinity."

Data sources

Smartphone Call to 911

Ring had planned to build a feature through which cameras could activate automatically near 911 calls.

Getty Images

For multiple police departments, providing data to Ring is a contractual obligation. Privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur found several instances in which police agreed to give Ring access to call logs and incident data. 

One of those contracts was between Ring and the sheriff's department in St. Lucie County, Florida. The department agreed to "make data related to incidents / call logs available to Ring on a mutually agreed upon basis."

The St. Lucie County Sheriff's Department said Ring was working with its 911 dispatch center for data and that the agency itself didn't provide any data to the company. The department also said it knew that dispatch data would be used, per Ring's idea, and supported the automatic activation feature. 

"Yes, this could be beneficial to investigative efforts," a sheriff's department spokesman said in an email.

Even when police deny Ring's requests for dispatch data, the company said it obtains the information in other ways. In the email to the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, Ring said it has partnerships with public safety software providers, such as Central Square Technologies, NC4 and Motorola.

Central Square Technologies, formerly known as TriTech, makes a tool that gets real-time location of 911 callers through GPS data in text messages. NC4, which was acquired last month by Everbridge, provides real-time threat data. Motorola provides dispatch software to improve response time and give data to first responders.

Central Square said it isn't providing data to Ring but its customers could.

"All data in our systems belongs to the individual agencies that we work with, and any use of it is governed by the applicable laws and agencies' policies," the company said in a statement.

NC4 confirmed a partnership with Ring but declined to comment further. Motorola didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Ring also obtains data by scraping public records sources, specifically citing real-time data published by the Dallas Police Department as a resource. Dallas police didn't respond to a request for comment.

Dallas' open database is powered by Socrata Open Data Portal, which said it doesn't provide resources to private companies like Ring. 

"Our company does not dictate or otherwise control what information a government agency chooses to provide, nor do we control how public information is used," a spokesman said.  

Computer-aided dispatch data helps dispatchers improve call response times and determine the best way to provide resources. It also contains personal information from callers, many of whom are distressed. 

"CAD data reveals a host of intimate and personal information from domestic problems to medical crises to who lives at a particular address and with whom," said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing and a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia. "While important, they are the product of emergency reactions and imperfect information." 

A 911 automated camera switch could also raise concerns about false alarms and bias, which have already been a problem with the Neighbors app. Ring's plan for 911-activated cameras rang alarm bells for privacy advocates.  

"What happens when someone calls the police because there's a 'suspicious person' in the neighborhood?" the EFF's Guariglia said. "Now every camera in that neighborhood is turned on and tracking a dog walker or someone out on a stroll just because of their race or the color of their skin."