Amazon's Ring Video Doorbells Could Be a Privacy Nightmare [Updated with Ring's Statement]

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Update: Ring has commented on the issue:

"Ring values the trust our customers place in us and is committed to protecting privacy. Ring customers decide whether to share footage publicly and whether or not they want to purchase a recording plan. Ring does not support programs that require recipients to subscribe to a recording plan or share footage as a condition for receiving a donated device. We are actively working with partners to ensure this is reflected in their programs. Privacy and security and consent are extremely important to us, and every decision we make as a company centers around these three pillars."

We've clarified some verbiage used regarding details of "Operation Grinch Grab" in the full story below.

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It's ironic that Amazon started out as a bookstore since one of the well-loved classics on its shelves certainly seems to be a bit prophetic about the big river's future prospects in a dystopian police state. What's all this doom and gloom? As with many things, Amazon's "Operation Grinch Grab" started off with good intentions for both the company and the local police department in Aurora, Colorado. What transpired could raise the eyebrows of a few civil liberties advocates and sounds a little too much like 1984 for some folks.

Amazon owns Ring, maker of one of the most popular video doorbells on the market, and often discounts its doorbells heavily to get customers in, similar to how they treat their Echo line of smart speakers. Last December, "Operation Grinch Grab" included a partnership with the local police department in Aurora, Colorado to nab package thieves, and the Ring doorbell was central to that sting operation.

Amazon custom-built packages with GPS trackers inside and arranged them to be delivered to houses specially outfitted with Ring doorbells. Law enforcement could then request footage from Ring doorbell owners that participated in the program if the rigged package was stolen. The purpose of the operation was to nab package thieves in the act; a theme that has become a rather popular marketing point with other IoT device makers lately, but resulted without a single arrest.

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What's more unfortunate is that the purpose of this sting was designed as a PR move for both Amazon and the Aurora PD, which both felt in need of a little boost of public opinion due to the rampant outbreak of package thefts, particularly around the holidays. The close nature of this project included Amazon drafting press releases that the police department went along with, is mostly what brings question to the partnership.

While it seems like this story would revolve around a semi-humorous waste of taxpayer dollars, the real story is based around Amazon's involvement with the police and the possibility of your video doorbell being used in a wider surveillance state.

Ring has been close with police departments nation-wide over the past two years, which involves a close relationship to provide law enforcement with better tools to more quickly and accurately catch the bad guys. Sometimes this comes in the form of direct footage of a thief's face as they approach the door. Other times this revolves around finding footage of a suspicious vehicle driving through the neighborhood. All of this footage can be requested by law enforcement via Ring's Neighbors app, which residents then need to allow access to, but police may also have the ability to subpoena Ring if the need arises.

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Surveillance life abroad paints a rather dismal picture of the possibility of having too many cameras in our daily lives. While it brings a sense of security during times that you may be powerless to do anything (such as when you're away from home on vacation or at work), too much recorded footage can always leave room for other nefarious deeds to take place.

Ring responded to a story run by CNet in early June stating that it would be cracking down on agencies that require citizens to turn over data against their will. It does little to assuage the fears of those that might have already bought into these types of programs to begin with though or, worse, having your neighborhood peace disturbed by the fact that your daily walk through the neighborhood could be recorded.

The idea here isn't to make people paranoid, rather, it's to make people aware of what's slowly happening in our homes and neighborhoods. Smart home gear is a blessing in so many ways, from the added security that a front-door camera with a speaker can bring, to the added comfort of being able to both save money and come home to a climate-controlled house. It can also be a curse when not used right, especially when that involves data privacy and security.

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Then there's also the question of corporate partnership with governments and other entities. Google and Microsoft have both come under fire in the past because of their cooperation with the US military on AI partnerships, and Amazon's swooning of cities for added capital is straight up villainous in some circumstances thanks to promise of exquisite tax cuts to build a new HQ for the company.

It's important to note that Ring owners have a say in whether their data is shared or not, all found within the company's app. The question is whether or not the court thinks your data is private enough to be withheld, or if these types of devices will end up adding to the already growing collection of widely-spread personal data.