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Amazon-owned Ring under surveillance from Senators

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A group of Senators is demanding that Ring, the Amazon-owned home surveillance company, addresses the civil liberties concerns associated with its signature product.

The company is best known for the Ring Doorbell, which features an HD camera, motion sensor, microphone and speaker, all of which is integrated with an app to allow users to view real-time video from the camera and communicate directly with visitors, wherever in the world the user happens to be at that moment. The product has raised concerns due to its ability to function as a tool for surveillance: a characterisation to which Amazon has objected.

US lawmakers have raised these privacy and other civil liberties concerns with Amazon. In a letter addressed to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, five Democratic senators (Ron Wyden of Oregon, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Chris Coons of Delware, and Gary Peters of Michigan) have demanded to know how Amazon is protecting customer data.

“Millions of consumers use Ring’s products and services, which include internet-connected video doorbells, spotlight cameras and alarm systems. Ring devices routinely upload data, including video records, to Amazon’s servers,” they wrote. “Amazon therefore holds a vast amount of deeply sensitive data and video footage detailing the lives of Americans in and near their homes.”

The Senators suggest that hackers, including state-backed hackers, could threaten national security if they were to acquire this data. “Personal data can be exploited by foreign intelligence services to amplify the impact of espionage and influence operations,” the Senators warned.

They cited 2019 reports concerning possibly security risks associated with Ring, including a report that Ring’s Ukraine-based R&D team had been given almost complete access to an Amazon server containing video footage from every Ring Doorbell. These reports “raise serious questions about Ring’s internal cyber-security and privacy safeguards, particularly if employees and contractors in foreign countries have access to American consumers’ data,” the Senators wrote.

They have argued that consumers have the right to know exactly who can access the video captured by their Ring devices. They also demanded further explanations from Amazon about its data security practices, such as whether footage is encrypted, and how frequently Ring performs common security tests. A response has been requested by 6 January 2020.

The Senators had previously questioned Amazon’s Ring about its relationship with US law enforcement agencies, which allowed police forces considerable access to footage captured by Ring Doorbells.

Amazon’s responses have recently been released, revealing partnerships with more than 600 law enforcement agencies and no restrictions on how police forces use and store the footage that they obtain. Amazon confirmed that it does not employ facial-recognition technology in its Ring products, although it is “constantly innovating on behalf of our customers and privacy, security and user control will always be paramount when Ring considers applying any technology to its business.”

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the US government in an effort to extract information about use of facial-recognition technologies by government agencies, after its FOI requests went unanswered for months.

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