Amazon reverses course, revokes police access to Ring footage via Neighbors app

Update: Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Guariglia offered TechCrunch the following statement:

Today, Amazon Ring has announced that it will no longer facilitate police's warrantless requests for footage from Ring users. Years ago, after public outcry and a lot of criticism from EFF and other organizations, Ring ended its practice of allowing police to automatically send requests for footage to the email inbox of users, opting instead for a system where police had to publicly post requests onto Ring's Neighbors app. Now, Ring hopefully will altogether be out of the business of platforming casual and warrantless police requests for footage to its users. This is a step in the right direction but has come after years of cozy relationships with police and irresponsible handling of data (for which they reached a settlement with the FTC). Ring has been forced to make some important concessions -- but we still believe the devices can enable end-to-end encryption by default and turn off default audio collection, which reports have shown collect audio from greater distances than initially assumed. We are also still deeply skeptical about law enforcement’s and Ring’s ability to determine what is, or is not, an emergency that requires the company to hand over footage without a warrant or user consent.

Amazon today announced that it is end-of-lifing Request for Assistance (RFA), a controversial tool that allowed police and fire departments to request doorbell video through Ring’s Neighbors app.

“Public safety agencies like fire and police departments can still use the Neighbors app to share helpful safety tips, updates, and community events,” Neighbors app head, Eric Kuhn, noted in a blog post. “They will no longer be able to use the RFA tool to request and receive video in the app. Public safety agency posts are still public, and will be available for users to view on the Neighbors app feed and on the agency's profile.”

The feature has been a major concern for privacy advocates for a number of years. In 2021, Amazon made police requests public as part of its biannual transparency report. That year, it received 3,147 legal requests from agencies representing a 65% increase over the previous year.

Public officials have also raised concerns about the practice. In 2019, for instance, Massachusetts senator Ed Markey penned an open letter to then-CEO Jeff Bezos, noting:

Although Amazon markets Ring as America’s "new neighborhood watch," the technology captures and stores video from millions of households and sweeps up footage of countless bystanders who may be unaware that they are being filmed. I am particularly alarmed to learn that Ring is pursuing facial-recognition technology with the potential to flag certain individuals as suspicious based on their biometric information.

Markey also cited biases in facial recognition software as a major issue, expressing concern around a disproportionate misidentification among people of color.

“As stated in Ring's law enforcement guidelines, Ring reserves the right to respond immediately to urgent law enforcement requests for information in cases involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person. Emergency disclosure requests must be accompanied by a completed emergency request form,” the company wrote in its own letter. “Based on the information provided in the emergency request form and the circumstances described by the officer, Ring makes a good-faith determination whether the request meets the well-known standard, grounded in federal law, that there is imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requiring disclosure of information without delay.”

Today's news marks a key change in policy that is likely to be heralded as a win for privacy advocates.