Amazon’s Ring security camera plays ding-dong ditch with facial recognition and user privacy

Ring, the security camera owned by Amazon, reportedly planned to merge facial recognition software with its growing network of home cameras to build an AI-curated neighborhood “watch list.” As described by The Intercept, the plan called for a “seamless system whereby a Ring owner would be automatically alerted when an individual deemed “suspicious” was captured in their camera’s frame.” These alerts could be built into lists of individuals and made available through the Ring Neighbors app which enables the camera owners to discuss together potential porch and garage security threats.

It’s not just neighbors getting together with some facial recognition to uncover the potential bad guys. This news also comes as Ring has expanded its data sharing deal with American police to over 500 individual departments. And there are no time restrictions over how long the police can keep the security camera footage. It’s really an indirect, backdoor way to give police both camera footage and facial recognition power.

Facial recognition is a problem

Facial recognition software is a Pandora’s box of privacy and security issues. It is already being massively deployed in some areas such as with ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region in China. Deployment in Europe and in America has run across an array of legal challenges. Then there are also practical issues as facial recognition does not seem to work so well with some ethnic groups.

Ring says the fears are overwrought with spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri telling The Intercept that “the features described are not in development or in use and Ring does not use facial recognition technology.”

Self-serving recognition in so many ways

Even without the facial recognition, Ring cameras are a multiple win win for Amazon. Directly, they can help them get a grip on the porch bandit issue of Amazon packages being stolen in some areas and neighborhoods in the USA. It’s a great combination: Have people buy cameras from Amazon so they can be sure that their Amazon packages arrive.

Then there is that police connection. While the details are limited on this, EFF has reported that partner police can take a look at Ring’s “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal,” which is a map of Ring camera locations in particular areas. Police can see who has a Ring camera, then just ask owners for access to their camera footage for essentially unlimited access. And once approved, the police no longer need a warrant to get this information – forever, it seems.

Amazon has also transformed the police into its friendly sales agents. When the police encourage locals to buy into the Ring system, they also get credits toward buying additional cameras that they can distribute on their own.

Creating a self-restricted, market-friendly ghetto

Andrew Ferguson, author of “The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement” was interviewed in the Marketplace over his take on the Amazon approach. Two major points are worth noting. First, this can be used within a neighborhood to identify outsiders and essentially let people ghettoize themselves from larger, more open society. That is a long-term negative in an open society. Second, there is that Amazon problem. Here is the money quote: “Amazon is building a very effective surveillance state that we would be offended if the government tried to mandate, but somehow as consumers, we seem OK with giving up this information to a private company.” Very well said.

Merging the corporate and government privacy divide

The growth of the Ring/police connection comes as Americans are generally more accepting of data collection by government for relatively nebulous threats than they are for turning over smart speaker recordings for real crimes.In a recent PEW Research survey, only 31% were against the government collecting data to protect against terrorism while 49 % were against turning over a smart speaker recording of a murder. In addition, people are generally more accepting of data collection by the state than by corporations. The growth of Ring could upset these trends, making data collection at the house level acceptable — for both the state and corporate interests.

As a PR Consultant and journalist, Frink has covered IT security issues for a number of security software firms, as well as provided reviews and insight on the beer and automotive industries (but usually not at the same time). Otherwise, he’s known for making a great bowl of popcorn and extraordinary messes in a kitchen.