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How Does Amazon Ring Protect User Privacy? "Basically, They Don't," Senator's Investigation Finds

Sen. Ed Markey found Amazon's lack of civil rights protections "nothing short of chilling."

An Amazon Ring camera is pictured at Amazon headquarters on September 20, 2018 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Amazon on Tuesday confirmed in responses to an investigation by Sen. Ed Markey its critics' worst fears about the privacy violations inherent in the use of the company's Ring home surveillance system.

Markey began his inquiry into Ring in September, demanding answers from Amazon about how it protects the privacy of people who use the electronic doorbell system, which allows people to install video cameras outside their homes which can film their doorstep and property as well as the surrounding area.

The civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation tweeted that Amazon's answer was: "Basically, they don't."

Markey revealed Tuesday that, especially considering Ring's partnerships with more than 400 police departments across the U.S., video captured by the technology including footage captured at Ring users' homes could be kept indefinitely by law enforcement agencies and could end up in the hands of third parties.

The senator called the results of his inquiry "nothing short of chilling."

"Connected doorbells are well on their way to becoming a mainstay of American households," said Markey. "Amazon Ring's policies are an open door for privacy and civil liberty violations."

While Ring is marketed to the public as a product that will safeguard people's homes, the digital rights group Fight for the Future said Markey's findings demonstrate that Amazon's surveillance technology endangers Americans.

"Amazon plays on people's fears to sell them surveillance products, and then turns around and puts them and their neighbors in danger," said deputy director Evan Greer. "Through consumer products like Ring, Amazon is collecting footage and all the data needed to build a nationwide surveillance network."

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In response to Markey's questions, Amazon officials confirmed a number of fears about the technology, including:

  • Ring has no restrictions on law enforcement sharing users' footage with third parties
  • Ring has no policies that prohibit law enforcement from keeping shared video footage forever
  • Ring has no evidentiary standard for law enforcement to request Ring footage from users
  • Ring refuses to commit to not selling users' biometric data

According to Fight for the Future, the investigation shows that "millions of Americans are being swept up in captured video footage without any knowledge of the threats. And now Amazon openly admits that it has enacted no policies or oversight to protect them."

People all over the country—even non-Ring users—are "completely vulnerable to the whims of whoever gains access to surveillance footage whether it be Amazon employees, police departments, or hackers taking advantage of Amazon's lax security protections," Greer said.

"This is an unprecedented assault on our security, constitutionally protected rights, and communities," Greer added. "Amazon's admissions to Sen. Markey show that we need an immediate full scale congressional investigation into this tech titan's surveillance practices." 

Other critics expressed anger over the findings on social media.

On Wednesday Markey was joined by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) in demanding an explanation from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about what they called potential threats to national security brought about by Ring's collection and sharing of video surveillance.

"Amazon...holds a vast amount of deeply sensitive data and video footage detailing the lives of millions of Americans in and near their homes," wrote the lawmakers. "If hackers or foreign actors were to gain access to this data, it would not only threaten the privacy and safety of the impacted Americans; it could also threaten U.S. national security. Personal data can be exploited by foreign intelligence services to amplify the impact of espionage and influence operations."

"Americans who make the choice to install Ring products in and outside their homes do so under the assumption that they are as your website proclaims 'making the neighborhood safer,'" the senators added. "As such, the American people have a right to know who else is looking at the data they provide to Ring, and if that data is secure from hackers."

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