On June 21, Chris Williams, the captain of the El Monte Police Department in California, sent an email to staff reminding them about a new incentive for crime witnesses to share information with law enforcement. Rather than the cash reward used by some programs, El Monte gave out camera-equipped doorbells made by the home security company Ring, which retail starting at $99. “The Ring Home Security Camera system provides not only intelligence about suspect’s action and descriptions, but serves as a deterrent to crime,” Williams wrote, according to documents obtained in response to a public records request.
Earlier that year, El Monte had entered into an official partnership with Ring, which gives officers access to an online platform where they can ask citizens for footage from their doorbell cameras that may be connected to a crime investigation. In exchange, police departments promote the use of Ring’s cameras and its associated crime watch app, Neighbors. A few weeks after Williams sent out a reminder about the rewards program, a Ring employee emailed him with a congratulatory note: “Since EMPD first onboarded on 5/1, you have all increased your Neighbors app users (El Monte residents) by 1,058 users! Great job!”
While El Monte’s rewards program is fairly unique, the police department’s relationship with Ring isn’t. According to one memo uncovered by Gizmodo earlier this week, over 225 other police departments have entered into contractual partnerships with the surveillance company, which was acquired by Amazon last year for over $800 million. Some departments have given out free or discounted Ring devices to the community, and city governments are also subsidizing Ring products using taxpayer money, according to reporting from Motherboard. Ring says it didn’t pay for the doorbells given out in El Monte, and the police department did not return a request for comment.
Ring’s partnerships with law enforcement have come under growing scrutiny in recent months, as media reports have raised questions about their lack of transparency and potential for privacy abuses. Ring argues that its products can drastically reduce crime in communities, but critics have questioned the grounds for those claims. Others accuse the Neighbors app, and similar apps like Citizen, of creating an ersatz surveillance state and stoking fears at a time when crime rates are at historic lows. The company’s motion-activated doorbells may capture innocent activities of people who live nearby, like someone walking down a public street. Earlier this week, the digital rights group Fight for the Future launched a new campaign asking citizens to demand their local police departments end their relationship with the company.
“We’re proud of our partnerships with law enforcement and the opportunities they offer to Neighbors app users,” a Ring spokesperson said in a statement. “Through these partnerships, we are opening the lines of communication between community members and local law enforcement and providing app users with important crime and safety information directly from the official source. We’ve seen many positive examples of Neighbors users and law enforcement engaging on the app and believe open communication is an important step in building safer, stronger communities.”
Ring has sought to tightly control how police officials portray their partnerships with the company, as both Gizmodo and Motherboard have reported. It sends cops scripted talking points to publish on social media and canned outreach messages to post on Neighbors. The company also asks police departments to sign confidential agreements, which often include a clause promising not to issue public statements about Ring before they are first vetted by Ring itself. “The relationship between the company and the police departments doesn’t necessarily seem to be completely about public safety,” says Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “They seem to be enlisting law enforcement in a sort of sales role.”
When police departments go even slightly off-script, Ring pushes back. In April, the Bloomfield Police Department in New Jersey announced it was partnering with Ring and published a press release on social media that, according to documents obtained from another public records request, appeared to be almost entirely written by the company. The only parts that weren’t taken from Ring directly were quotes attributed to Bloomfield’s mayor, Michael Venezia, and its public safety director, Samuel DeMaio. Still, a member of Ring’s public relations team emailed the department after its announcement, asking for several corrections to be made, like ensuring Ring was always capitalized and its Neighbors app was mentioned by name.
“Unfortunately I can’t make [the mayor and public safety director] say anything specific,” Bloomfield Police Captain Vincent Kerney wrote back to the Ring staffer. “All of the information was copied and pasted directly from your press releases with the exception of the quotes.” The Ring public relations representative insisted the changes be made at least on Facebook, which they later were, according to the post’s edit history. The Bloomfield Police Department did not return a request for comment.
Once a police department has access to Ring’s portal, officers can use it to request video footage from local Ring camera owners. The request email uses a template largely written by Ring, although police specify the time frame and geographic area they are looking for, as well as add a custom message. Police don’t need to obtain a warrant to send a request, and citizens aren’t under any legal obligation to hand over their recordings. But Ring doesn’t always remind customers of that fact. In one request from May, sent by police in Bloomfield, Ring starts by informing people that “Sharing videos is absolutely your choice.” In another message sent by El Monte police in June, that explicit disclosure wasn’t present. Instead, the email says, “If you would like to take direct action against crime in your community, this is a great opportunity.”
“Ring customers decide whether to share footage publicly or with law enforcement. As we continue to develop our programs, privacy, security and control will remain extremely important to us, and every decision we make as a company centers around these three pillars,” the spokesperson for Ring said in a statement.
Civil liberties groups have begun demanding more transparency and public oversight over partnerships between police departments and private companies like Ring. Kade Crockford, a director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said Friday that the organization planned to file 100 public records requests seeking information about potential undisclosed Ring partnerships across the state. “We want to make sure that if those relationships are considered, the details of them are hashed out in public.”
Since 2016, the ACLU has worked to prevent police departments from signing secretive deals with technology vendors by lobbying for Community Control Over Police Surveillance laws. CCOPS ordinances often require local governments to publicly approve the use of new technology by police. The laws, which have passed in cities in California, Washington, and Massachusetts, “create a new democratic procedure for handling all types of surveillance technologies in the future,” says Crockford.
As internet-connected camera technology has gotten cheaper and easier to use, Ring became just one of a number of consumer surveillance companies to partner with police. Flock, which makes license plate readers targeted toward groups like homeowners associations, has similarly touted its relationship with law enforcement, for example. Many of the details of how these corporations assist police remain secret. Ring wouldn’t disclose exactly how many police departments it is working with. “We should definitely be concerned about this surveillance network that is being built, this public safety infrastructure that is being built, that isn’t going through a full proper process,” Maass says.
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CORRECTION, 8/3/19, 12:45 PM ET: A previous version of this story implied that police departments were subsidizing Ring devices for local consumers. It is city governments that are financing the give-aways, not police departments directly.