After months of stonewalling, Amazon's smart doorbell company, Ring, revealed last week that it's working with over 400 law enforcement agencies across the United States.
According to records obtained through an information request, Ring has offered the departments unprecedented access to customers of the doorbell camera system which allows people to monitor their doorstep remotely. The company also has an app, Neighbors by Ring, which allows people to view footage uploaded by other Ring owners, according to The Guardian.
Participating departments allow police to see the general vicinity of camera locations in a community, while also enabling them to request that users who post to Neighbors share those clips with law enforcement.
Pittsburg, Kansas, a city near the Missouri border with a population of 20,000 people, publicly announced a partnership with Ring on 22 April 2019. Emails obtained by the Guardian show Ring first pitched the department in December 2018, offering deals including discounts on devices and sending the police force a free $200 device for every 20 downloads of the Neighbors app. These types of tit-for-tat agreements were a common practice for the company, reporting from Motherboard has showed, and are part of an effort to grow the audience of its app.
On 28 February, once the Pittsburg police green-lighted the program, Ring sent the department a press release template and noted the final communique would have to be approved by Ring before release. The Ring representative also sent Amazon-approved social media assets to be used to promote the Ring program. -Guardian
"Remember to make sure you highlight your Branch/Text link to try and have your civilians download the Neighbors by Ring App," said the ring rep on March 12, 2019. "I recommend reposting these links to your social media pages once a month to re-engage the community to download the app!"
Ring, meanwhile, is helping police department pitch their 'friendly' surveillance cameras to the public - heavily editing press releases about the program so they don't sound so 'big brotherish.'
Similar arrangements between Ring and law enforcement in California, Florida and Texas were documented by Gizmodo - while it should be noted that Ring customers grant the company an irrevocable, perpetual licence to use video content users post on the Neighbors platform.
"Ring provides sample social media content for police departments to utilize at their discretion to inform their jurisdictions about their partnerships with Ring," said a spokeswoman for the company, adding "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."
Except, BuzzFeed says "that's not the whole story," based on documents they've seen.
"While Ring devices don’t currently use facial recognition technology, the company’s Ukraine arm appears to be working on it," according to the report.
"We develop semi-automated crime prevention and monitoring systems which are based on, but not limited to, face recognition," according to Ring Ukraine's website.
BuzzFeed News also found a 2018 presentation from Ring Ukraine's "head of face recognition research" online and direct references to the technology on its website.
Ring’s contradictory statements about its facial recognition efforts is just the latest example of the Amazon-owned company’s lack of transparency regarding its products. On Wednesday, the company revealed that it was working with more than 400 law enforcement agencies in the US, after spending months stonewalling media outlets, activists, and researchers who asked questions about the company’s partnerships with police departments. -BuzzFeed
Meanwhile, Ring filed two patent applications in November, 2018 that describe technology to identify "suspicious people" and create a "database of suspicious persons." Also of note - Ring Ukraine had a "head of face recognition research" as recently as the spring of last year. According to the report, "In March 2018, Oleksandr Obiednikov identified himself using that title and published a presentation that showed how cameras could better identify street signs and employ “Alignment-free Face Recognition.”"
This April, Obiednikov's LinkedIn page made no mention of the phrase "facial recognition."
This isn't sitting well with privacy advocates.
"We are on the verge of an unprecedented increase in state and private spying that will be built in plain sight," according to Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. "It will be built in winsome partnership between corporations and government agencies hungry for more data and control."
The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns over law enforcement's potential use of facial recognition software in Ring devices. Ring’s parent company, Amazon, makes facial recognition software Rekognition, which is already in use by police departments. -BuzzFeed
So, is Amazon test-bedding a facial recognition-powered surveillance network in Ukraine? Sure looks that way.