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Amazon’s Ring objected to ‘surveillance’ characterisation from police chief

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According to documents acquired by Gizmodo, the Amazon-owned home security tech company has censored terms such as ‘surveillance’ used by a police chief describing a local partnership with Ring.

In February 2018, Amazon acquired Ring – a home security company which sells connected video doorbells and other outdoor surveillance devices – for approximately $1bn (£820m). In the past year, Ring has been establishing partnerships with law-enforcement bodies to assist with local crime-monitoring efforts.

However, emails acquired by Gizmodo show that Ring quietly censored terms such as surveillance to describe this work.

In March, New Jersey’s Ewing Police Department joined Ring’s ‘Neighbors’ app. This app allows police to request access to surveillance footage captured by Ring cameras, as well as allowing residents to view local crime reports and contribute their own information. As part of the partnership, the police department offered more than $10,000 (£8,200) in subsidies to help locals and police officers buy their own Ring devices.

Ring provided a press release announcing the adoption of the Neighbors app by Ewing Police Department. This included a quote from Police Chief John Stemler, which was edited to remove terms including “surveillance” and “security cameras”. Stemler was originally quoted saying: “Security cameras have been proven to be essential in deterring crime, and surveillance systems have assisted in closing cases that may have otherwise gone unsolved.”

However, this sentence was deleted from the press release by Ring’s PR coordinator before the release was returned to the police department as being “good to go” out to the local press list. Stemlers original quote did not appear in the press release sent to reporters.

The Ring coordinator stated that Ring had “learned to avoid” these terms as they “might confuse residents into thinking this program requires a Ring device or other system to participate or that it provides any sort of direct access to user devices and information”. A Ring representative told Gizmodo that: “Ring requests to look at press releases and any messaging prior to distribution to ensure our company and our products and services are accurately represented.”

Motherboard previously reported on the concerning terms of Ring’s contracts with US police departments, revealing, for instance, that Florida’s Lakeland Police Department is required to “encourage adoption” of Ring products as part of its partnership with the company. This includes regularly positing positive content about how Ring has been used to apprehend suspects. The agreement also requires police to “keep the terms of this program confidential”.

According to Gizmodo, Ring has a sought a close relationship with police departments, including by seeking to access to real-time 911 caller data from police forces in order to personalise crime news for the Neighbors app. Ring confirmed to Gizmodo that it has access to data such as GPS coordinates, incident time, and incident description from some of its law enforcement partners.

Motherboard also reported this week that local police departments in at least three cities have requested that Ring shares the personal data – names, addresses, and email addresses – of all customers who purchase a subsidised Ring device. A Ring representative has disputed this report, stating that Ring customers submit their own information with the knowledge that it will be used to verify their suitability for the subsidy program.

Advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Fight for the Future have accused Ring of using these law enforcement partnerships to build surveillance networks which “undermine our democratic processes and basic civil liberties”.

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