If the recent controversy around Amazon and Ring’s partnerships with US law enforcement has you feeling a little icky with your current choice of smart security hardware, you might be wondering if there are tech brands playing in the same space that could act as an alternative.
You know? Smart tech companies who don’t talk to pigs.
Here’s a run-down on which smart security brands are and aren’t cool with helping build a surveillance state.
Wait, what’s this controversy about?
OK, let's start with the basics.
Ring is a smart security startup that was founded in 2013. Their flagship product is a smart video doorbell that integrates really nicely with a mobile app and can automatically start recording when its built-in motion sensors are activated.
The company has since expanded their product portfolio with some accessories but, fundamentally, their core business is driven by the Ring Video Doorbell.
In 2018, Ring was acquired by Amazon for an undisclosed sum, reportedly around US$800 million.
A year later, the troubles began. January saw The Intercept report that a handful of Ring employees had “unfettered access to a folder on Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service that contained every video created by every Ring camera around the world.”
This expose also cited sources who alleged that “Ring unnecessarily provided executives and engineers in the U.S. with highly privileged access to the company’s technical support video portal, allowing unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras, regardless of whether they needed access to this extremely sensitive data to do their jobs.”
At the time, Ring denied these disturbing claims. We don’t have time to go too deeply into things here but, in retrospect, it’s apparent that this initial controversy primed a lot of the criticism that was to come. Ring might have been using customer footage for a reasonably legitimate reason - improving their image and object recognition algorithms - but the Intercept’s story paints a damning picture of how respectfully the company handles the privacy of its customers.
Only a few months later, Ring again came under fire - this time for its Community Alert program. This initiative saw Ring share video footage of a crime captured by their devices using geo targeted posts on social media to try and solicit tips on the suspect implicated by the footage.
Again, there’s a really rich confluence of meaty tech issues here. Does this constitute advertising? Is it an open invitation for internet pile-ons, racial profiling and mob justice? In this instance, Ring says they got permission from the customer before publishing the post. However, like the previous controversy, it raises red flags around the company’s behavior and way it handles sensitive customer information.
It also brought to light Ring’s most divisive controversy yet: their ongoing partnerships with law enforcement.
As of this month, Ring has partnered with over 700 law enforcement agencies across the US. Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff told CBS that the company’s intention is to “have every law enforcement agency on the police portal.”
Among other things, these partnerships give police access to a map showing where Ring devices are installed and a fast-tracked process through which they can request access to footage from Ring customers.
Now, customers are free and able to reject these requests. However, reports from Vice that the company working to coach law enforcement on how to best persuade uncooperative Ring users can be seen to suggest a bizarre conflict of interest between Ring, their customers and their police partnerships.
Ring aren’t giving police unlimited access to your video feeds but they are actively trying to make it easy as possible - which, if you’re security conscious or aware of the many, many cases of power abuse by said agencies within recent history, is certainly cause for concern.
Combined with stories of Ring working with government groups to subsidiseor giving away Ring products to low-income individuals and, at least in my opinion, the whole arrangement begins to feel really murky. The company’s past behaviours when it comes to protecting consumer privacy don’t inspire much confidence either.
What does Ring have to say for itself?
Ring insists it hasn’t done anything wrong. If anything, they’re “proud” of their police partnerships.
In an interview with Wired at this year’s CES in Las Vegas, Amazon chief Dave Limp said that “I’m proud of that program, and I think we’ll continue to do it. If anything we’re putting more resources on it.”
Still, for now at least, it looks like the programme will stay within the United States.
Asked for comment by PC World, the company’s local branch tells us that “the Neighbours app is not available in Australia at this time.”
“Ring takes the privacy and security of its customers’ extremely seriously. Our video request features do not give police access to the locations of devices, and user information remains private unless a user chooses to share.“
Do I have any other options?
Ring isn’t the only smart security company in town. Here’s a rundown on the other options and whether they’re doing anything similar.
According to the company, Arlo “never share your data, including videos, without your consent or a court order to do so. If there is a request by law enforcement for your videos, we require a legally enforceable search warrant or other equivalent court order mandating that Arlo turn over the videos to law enforcement.”
PC World Australia understands that this kind of policy is fairly standard across most smart security companies.
Approached by PC World Australia, Swann told us they’re currently in the process of setting up a CCTV registry that will be up and running on their new ‘SwannSecurity’ app.
Part of the registration process is to opt in or out to share content from the users’ security system. Swann plans to roll out this registry in the third quarter of 2020. The company says that they may eventually look to expand the registry to share approved content with police and law enforcement but emphasised that participation is “at the discretion of each registered Swann user.”
Google have recently rolled out a feature in the US that lets you quickly converse with emergency services without verbal communication and launched the Nest Aware subscription service in Australia.
However, both of these programs are a long way from the kinds of arrangements that Ring have courted with US law enforcement.
PC World understands that Google's process of handling requests from law enforcement is not all that different to Arlo's. According to Nest's privacy statement, the company "process your data when we have a legal obligation to do so, for example, if we’re responding to a legal process or an enforceable governmental request.
Though D-Link's smart home Wi-Fi cameras do support cloud-based recording, the company told PC World Australia that they do not currently have any programmes in place within Australia that are similar to Ring’s police portal.