Amazon's surveillance doorbell marketers help cops get warrantless access to video footage from peoples' homes

Every time I write about the unfolding scandal of Amazon's secret partnerships with hundreds of US police departments who get free merch and access to Ring surveillance doorbell footage in exchange for acting as a guerrilla marketing street-team for Ring, I get an affronted email from Amazon PR, implying that I got it all wrong, but unwilling to enter into detailed discussions of what's actually going on (the PR flacks also usually ask to be quoted officially but anonymously, something I never agree to).

For example, when I published this story, an Amazon PR person wrote to tell me that the statement that "Amazon provides their local law enforcement with comprehensive dossiers on everyone who activates a Ring doorbell, including 'where they live, the MAC addresses of each of their devices, and how to reach them by email or phone'" was incorrect, but could not explain why a public records request showed that the cops had all that information. At first, they said that the Ring owners must have provided it voluntarily to law enforcement, but when I asked if they really believed that someone had found the MAC address for their surveillance doorbells and painstakingly entered the long hexadecimal number into a website or dictated it over the phone, they said "We defer to law enforcement for questions about their process and operations."

One common thread in the PR spin I get on this story is that any access that law enforcement gets to Ring footage is a result of the cops asking -- via Amazon -- whether Ring customer will voluntarily provide it. They do not mention that if a Ring customer refuses a law-enforcement request, the cops can just tell Amazon that they need it for their investigation and obtain it that way.

But they also don't mention that Amazon has a whole program devoted to helping cops convince Ring owners to be part of a public-private surveillance grid, and that providing law-enforcement with warrantless access to surveillance footage is a form of civic virtue.

A newly released tranche of public records -- from Maywood and Bloomfield, New Jersey -- show that Ring's internal product team devotes substantial effort to coaching the cops in how to prime their communities to provide warrantless access to surveillance footage. These "Partner Success Associates" help cops spin a message encouraging Ring owners and others sign up for Amazon's "Neighbors" app (which streams terrifying messages about local crimes, ganked from 911 dispatch calls, which Amazon secretly does deals to obtain), and then they use the app, and other social media, to normalize the idea of turning over video to the cops without a warrant.

This program shows how Amazon has constructed a business that rewards cops for promoting its products: you sell Ring doorbells, we'll get you surveillance footage without your having to convince a judge that you really need it.

On May 31, the Bloomfield Detective Bureau Commander asked how the police department can encourage more people to submit Ring camera footage.

“I have been requesting videos but have not been getting any responses,” the detective wrote. “The only video that we have received is from a person that we directly spoke to and asked him to send it to us. [Is] there anything that we can blast out to encourage Ring owners to share the videos when requested?”

The Ring representative said that the cities with the best “opt in rate” for sharing Ring footage with police are active on social media.

“The agencies with the best opt in rate are the ones that are actively sharing on social media, having community outreach speak at meetings and spread via word of mouth,” the representative said.

Amazon Is Coaching Cops on How to Obtain Surveillance Footage Without a Warrant [Caroline Haskins/Motherboard]

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