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Ring Cameras and Police Surveillance: Growing Police Power Privacy Concerns

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Ring camera videos on YouTube can be fun: there are bears in backyard pools and cute kids in doorways.  However, from a criminal defense standpoint, the growing temptation for law enforcement to access Ring doorbell recordings (audio and/or video) in their criminal investigations is troublesome.  When it happens without (1) the Ring owner’s consent or (2) any search warrant oversight it becomes downright frightening.

Criminal defense lawyers are not the only ones concerned about this threat to our constitutional right to privacy and possible overreaching of police powers in this country.   Last month, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), as a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, released shocking information about the alliance between Amazon, which owns Ring, and law enforcement across this country.

Senator Mackey July 2022 Release on Amazon Ring Privacy Issues

In a recent press release (July 13, 2022) entitled Senator Markey’s Probe into Amazon Ring Reveals New Privacy Problems, not only were serious questions posed to Amazon’s doorbell video company, but Ring’s full response was provided with shocking replies. (Read the full Ring response here.)

Consider the following, all information provided by Senator Markey:

  1. As of June 2022, 2161 law enforcement agencies are on Ring’s Neighbors Public Safety Service (NPSS). This is a 500% increase in the number of agencies joining up with Ring in the past three years (since 2019).  Clearly the police like the idea of getting hold of Ring videos.
  2. There’s the possibility that Ring and the police are working on coordinating Ring videos with face recognition Ring effectively “took the 5th” on this query, in its refusal to answer the Senator’s question on this issue.
  3. Ring has confirmed to the U.S. Senate that so far in 2022, Ring videos have been provided to police pursuant to Ring’s internal policies eleven (11) times this year without the Ring owner’s knowledge or consent, nor any search warrant to support the video release. Think about this: the owner doesn’t know anything about this.  No judge is involved to police the police in a review of a probable cause affidavit before granting a request for a search warrant.
  4. Ring did not explain how far their products can grab audio recordings. How far away can the Ring doorbell pick up a conversation? (Reports are this can be as much as 25 feet)
  5. While Ring professes that its NPSS is for the public good, where mental health services, animal services, and other community organizations would be in the loop, the reality is that nowhere in this country are there government agencies involved other than local police and fire departments.
  6. Ring acknowledges to the U.S. Senate that the default setting of any Ring doorbell is to record audio automatically. The owner has to change the setting proactively to stop this.
  7. Ring also acknowledges to the U.S. Senate that right now Ring owners do not have the ability to have end-to-end encryption on their Ring doorbell and Ring will not agree to provide this as an option. (There are reports that encryption began to be offered as option in 2021).

From Senator Markey:

“As my ongoing investigation into Amazon illustrates, it has become increasingly difficult for the public to move, assemble, and converse in public without being tracked and recorded.

“We cannot accept this as inevitable in our country. Increasing law enforcement reliance on private surveillance creates a crisis of accountability, and I am particularly concerned that biometric surveillance could become central to the growing web of surveillance systems that Amazon and other powerful tech companies are responsible for. I will continue to exercise oversight of these harmful corporate practices. In the meantime, Congress must pass the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act to stop law enforcement from accessing sensitive information about our faces, voices, and bodies.”

Proposed Federal Legislation to Stop Law Enforcement Access to Private Surveillance Systems like Ring

Working together with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and alongside Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley, Senator Markey has proposed the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act  in response to the Ring concerns.

If enacted into law, the Act would outlaw federal agencies from using “biometric technology” by federal agencies outright.  It would try and block its use at the state and local police levels by tying the ability to get federal monies in grant funding to the state agreement to ban use of biometric technology in its jurisdiction.  The Act goes further than Ring doorbells in its definition of “biometric technology” but Ring doorbells would be included in the Act’s reach as devices providing data through privately operated biometric surveillance systems.

You can follow the legislation as it makes its way through Congress by tracking the bill (S.2052) here.

Other Serious Dangers When Police Access Ring Doorbell Videos

The private watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) has been monitoring the increasing bonding of Amazon Ring and law enforcement for a long time, as well.  Read, “Ring Reveals They Give Videos to Police Without User Consent or a Warrant,” published on July 15, 2022.

EFF’s investigations consider Ring doorbells to be “police cameras” just as much as they are used for individual security or privacy reasons.  As EFF points out, police aren’t buying these gadgets.  Nevertheless, Amazon Ring is happy to promote Ring doorbells via police officers, even giving free Ring doorbell products to officers when they get other people to buy Ring products using discount codes provided to the police officers for sales promotional purposes.

So, Amazon Ring is pushing police officers to acts as sales representatives for its devices.  EFF reports that the Los Angeles Police Department is currently investigating its police officers getting free stuff from Amazon in exchange for pushing Rings while on the beat.

EFF also makes the valid point that Ring has done disturbing dances with police concerning Ring doorbell video footage.  EFF reports police can easily send bulk requests to Amazon Ring for access to video footage from Ring doorbells in a “large area.”  In 2020, they did this over 20,000 times according to the Washington Post as referenced by EFF.  And it was not until 2021 that they did this publicly.  Only within the past year were these bulk requests made public – before that, these tens of thousands of requests were on the down low between the corporation and the police department.

Since 2021, the bulk requests are posted on Ring’s Neighbors app – so you can find out about them if you have signed up for the app itself. So, they are sort of public now.

What is the Ring “Emergency Exception” For Secretly Sending the Ring Video to Police?

In the eleven (11) times so far this year that Amazon Ring provided video to police without the owner’s knowledge or consent or any search warrant signed by a judge, Amazon Ring did so pursuant to its own internal “emergency exception” as provided by the company.  The Amazon provision provides:

Emergencies. 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 submitted to emergency-le-requests@ring.com. Such requests must include “EMERGENCY” in the subject line and be accompanied by a completed emergency request form. 

In this company policy, Amazon Ring invites the police to get a Ring doorbell video directly from the company if its own criteria are met.  There is an online Amazon Ring Law Enforcement Request form where the police officer or law enforcement agent can fill in the information and submit it directly to Amazon Ring.

Looking at Amazon Ring’s  Terms of Service, there is the company policy that Amazon Ring will agree to the release of the video as requested if (1) “if legally required to do so” or (2) if the company has a “good faith belief… “ that it is “reasonably necessary to … comply with applicable law, regulation, legal process or reasonable preservation request,” and its Law Enforcement Guidelines explain that the corporation “…reserves the right to respond immediately to urgent law enforcement requests for information in cases involving a threat to public safety or risk of harm to any person.”  (This is the “Emergency Exception.”)

Red flags?  Sure.  From a criminal defense perspective, one has to ask who decided to throw out the window the concept of allowing a judge to determine what is or is not an “emergency” that circumvents standard due process concerns.  Also, what about the owner of the doorbell?  They bought the product.  They use the product.  Why do they have no say in who gets to see that doorbell video, or even get notice that the police want to look at it?  Does the owner have any say in what constitutes an “emergency” here?

Consider how easily police power can be abused in these situations to exaggerate circumstances to that of an “emergency” in order to grab video from the company.  It’s staggering.

From EFF:

“We thank Senator Markey for raising these issues. For too long, Amazon has not taken seriously the many civil liberties concerns with its Ring products. We hope the strong response to these latest admissions will help push Amazon to make privacy overhauls. The company must consider the danger these products pose to the public by creating a growing web of surveillance systems that are owned by individuals, but are de-facto operated by law enforcement “

Dallas – Fort Worth and North Texas Police Partnerships with Amazon Ring

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, there’s been an ongoing relationship between Amazon Ring and our local police departments and law enforcement agencies for a few years now.  It is set up in a formal written contract. Read, “Here’s why police in Dallas-Fort Worth are partnering with doorbell-camera company Ring, despite privacy concerns,” written by Dan Branham and published by the Dallas Morning News on September 2, 2019.

The standard partnership, as reported by the Dallas newspaper in 2019, involves the Texas police department going to the Neighbors app and requesting video from Ring doorbell owners.  The report states the owner has control of whether or not to respond.  The news article also discusses how Safer Dallas Better Dallas got Ring doorbell cameras from the Dallas Police Department to use in a community raffle, while Frisco Police declined free gizmos from Amazon Ring because they don’t want to indirectly act as part of Amazon’s sales force.

From the news article, as of 2019, the Ring map for North Texas confirmed the following police departments had entered into contracts with Amazon Ring for access to Ring doorbell videos:

  • Allen
  • Azle
  • Balch Springs
  • Burleson
  • Carrollton
  • Celina
  • Colleyville
  • Coppell
  • Corinth
  • Dallas
  • Denton County Sheriff’s Office
  • DeSoto
  • Farmers Branch
  • Flower Mound
  • Fort Worth
  • Frisco
  • Grand Prairie
  • Irving
  • Mesquite
  • North Richland Hills
  • Plano
  • Richardson
  • Richland Hills
  • River Oaks
  • Sachse
  • Sherman
  • The Colony
  • University Park
  • Weatherford.

Ring Doorbells: the Criminal Defense Perspective

First of all, these video surveillance cameras are not going away.  And that may not be a bad thing.  Having a doorbell video undoubtedly deters crime.  Just watching YouTube videos of porch pirates and car thieves being thwarted by a Ring owner sounding the device’s internal alarm or shouting a warning through its intercom is enough to confirm that Ring doorbells do contribute to home security and community safety.

The question is how those videos are to be accessed and used by the police both in crime investigations as well as evidence in a criminal prosecution.  Note:  Visual recordings are governed by Texas recording laws.

  • What if the police get Ring doorbell videos for investigating Crime A and as they gather local data, they come across video of Crime B?
  • What about the accuracy of a doorbell video? What if the video provides incomplete or inaccurate information to the police officer? Has an innocent person been investigated, searched, or arrested?
  • How is the Ring doorbell video image or audio going to be authenticated and admitted into evidence? Have the evidentiary rules been met?
  • What are the constitutional considerations regarding search and seizure in the case? If the Ring data was obtained as an “emergency exception,” has there been a due process violation?

 

Emergency Surveillance Under Federal Law: The Statutory Protections

Of note, federal law addresses the law enforcement emergency situation in 18 U.S.C. § 2518(7), a federal statute that allows the United States Attorney General, a Deputy Attorney General, or an AUSA to designate a specific law enforcement officer who is then to review the emergency surveillance situation.

This officer decides if the circumstance justifies sidestepping getting a court order signed by a federal judge that okays the use of electronic surveillance.  It doesn’t end there.  A judge’s approval is still needed.  Under the statute, there must be a court order approving the officer’s decision to allow the emergency surveillance obtained from a judge within 48 hours.

Moreover, the federal law defines an emergency situation involves either: (1) immediate danger of death or serious bodily injury to any person; (2) conspiratorial activities threatening the national security interest; or (3) conspiratorial activities characteristic of organized crime. These are circumstances where there someone’s life is at stake, such as a case of kidnapping and extortion.  Nabozny v. Marshall, 781 F.2d 83 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1161 (1986).

Any electronic surveillance that does not meet the emergency surveillance statute is considered illegal and can be challenged by the defense.

Accordingly, longstanding search and seizure precedent will need to be researched and applied to each matter where the prosecutor’s file contains any reference to Ring doorbell video footage.  In some circumstances, a motion to suppress may be needed to filed to block the use of unconstitutionally obtained video or audio data.  For more, read What is a Motion to Suppress?

 

The Alibi

Of course, there are occasions where the criminal defense attorney will be delighted that Ring doorbell videos can provide evidence in a case.  This involves the establishing of an alibi on behalf of the accused.

One concrete example of this is one of my past case results, where my client was arrested and charged in Tarrant County with Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon.  This is a very serious felony charge.

However, a Ring Doorbell video provided video footage of the accused being a mile away from where the alleged crime took place.  Using the Ring doorbell video as evidence on behalf of the defense, the accused was proven innocent of the charges.  For details, read “Ring Camera Proves Alibi Defense In Tarrant County Aggravated Assault/Deadly Weapon.”

Ring Doorbell Evidence: Need for Experienced and Knowledgeable Criminal Defense

We must all learn to live with rapidly advancing surveillance technologies that allow for widespread electronic surveillance by law enforcement of which many of us may be blissfully unaware as we go about our day.  Part of this evolution entails protecting our privacy against the “Big Brother” aspects of Ring doorbell devices and their intrusions.

The law is evolving here.  It should be concerning to all that a private, power corporation like Amazon Ring is coordinating with law enforcement directly, with much less legal protections than electronic surveillance protocols established for federal emergency surveillance under federal statute.

Effective criminal defense approaches today have to be multi-focused when these types of electronic data are a part of the police investigation or the prosecution’s case.  There must be (1) an understanding of the current criminal laws; (2) an independent investigation into the various factual circumstances that make up criminal charges; and (3) technological savvy regarding electronic surveillance methods available to law enforcement and how they operate.  

Anyone facing criminal investigation or charges involving a Ring Doorbell camera video or audio should consider hiring an aggressive and experienced criminal defense lawyer as their advocate who understands these complexities.

For more on law enforcement surveillance issues, read:

 

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For more information, check out our web resources, read Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read his in-depth article,” Pre-Arrest Criminal Investigations.”

 


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