Videophones are no longer used only to inquire about the identity of the person ringing the doorbell. Those of Ring, a subsidiary of Amazon, also serve to inform the police, who can ask to recover their images, through partnerships between the US company and police offices in the United States.
The first partnership was in the spring of 2018, but since then, their number has exploded: Wednesday, August 28, Ring announced to have concluded with more than 400 police offices, which it has collected on a map. An unexpected figure – the latest US press inquiries cited about 200 – has reinforced the fears surrounding these programs.
Networking inhabitants of the same area
Ring connected videophones are very popular in the United States. The company claimed more than one million US customers when it was bought by Amazon in February 2018.
When someone rings, or when the object detects motion, the camera turns on and alerts the owner of the device. Whether at home or elsewhere, he can then watch live on his smartphone what the videophone is filming – with a very wide range, beyond the door. The images are saved, which allows him to consult them later.
At the same time, Ring is running an application in the United States called Neighbors, which aims to bring people in the same area together around security issues. This is especially designed to easily share images from videophones and other Ring equipment, such as surveillance cameras.
"This guy was scouting around my house, be careful", can we read for example in a message, accompanied by a video, displayed by Ring to promote Neighbors on the Google application store.
One click to transfer the images to the police
But the application goes even further, since it can also involve local police forces. The 400 police agencies that have entered into a partnership with Ring have access to a special portal, which allows them to interact with users of the application – to publish official information, alert messages, search information, etc. But also ask the owners of a videophone to send them pictures.
Ring provides them with a free interface on which they can easily perform this application. The receiving user only has to press a button to accept, and Ring will transfer the video to the police office. The owner of the device can also decline this request. In which case, Ring will not transfer any image – unless ordered by justice.
In France, if Ring sells connected videophones, the Neighbor application is not available. The company also provides World that no partnership exists with the French law enforcement agencies.
For their part, the Anglo-Saxon media investigated the links between Ring and the US police offices in the context of these partnerships, which are very advanced. The sites of Guardian, from Motherboard and Gizmodo revealed that Amazon's subsidiary directly trained police officers in the use of the software, and techniques to convince users to share their videos. "The offices that get the most videos are those that are very active on social networks"replied, for example, a representative of Ring, in an e-mail unveiled by Motherboard, to a policeman who was worried that his requests would go unanswered.
The company is also urging police offices to encourage citizens to download the Neighbors app. "The more users you have, the more useful information you will collect"wrote a Ring employee to a police officer in one of Motherboard's emails. Moreover, according to the American media, the company would reward police offices that have managed to generate a lot of registrations, by offering them Ring videophones … that they can then distribute to the population, in order to extend the surveillance device video.
The company also imposes certain conditions: it demands, for example, a right of scrutiny over the police press releases related to this program, "To ensure that our company, products and services are accurately represented"she explained to Motherboard. The site Gizmodo was able to note, in an exchange of e-mails between Ring and the police of Ewing Township (New Jersey), that the company asked for the withdrawal of a statement of the police the terms "Supervision" and " surveillance camera ".
"Amazon bypasses the democratic process"
What worry the defenders of individual freedoms. These partnerships "Erode trust in important public institutions by turning public servants into representatives of Amazon products", writes the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a leading organization for the defense of digital freedoms.
"If a police station wants to install surveillance cameras in every home in the city, it should first get the agreement of elected officials and citizens."says the organization Fight for the Future, which promotes a better Internet, in a statement calling on local authorities to suspend their partnerships with Ring.
"By building a private surveillance empire, all within the framework of a comfortable and disturbing relationship with law enforcement, Amazon has found the perfect way to bypass the democratic process. "
Critics of these programs also criticize them for sharpening paranoia, giving users the impression that their neighborhood is plagued by rampant crime. And transform every passing banal into a potential threat. The Washington Post reports that on the last Halloween, a Ring user in Maryland posted on the Neighbors app the video of two college kids ringing his door: "Do they come to ask for candy in advance, or do they have less good intentions? " asked he.
Seen more than 5,700 times, widely commented, the video was finally deleted by Ring after being reported by the American daily. The company assures that it is violating its rules because "There is no objective reason to doubt their behavior".
"Ring turns the deliveryman into a potential criminal"
"With each new message, Ring turns the delivery man or enumerator who stands innocently in front of the door as a potential criminal"regrets EFF, as the program revives concerns about the stigmatization of some populations.
"What often happens in cases where surveillance increases is that there are suddenly more arrests of" suspicious persons ", which means in fact people of color who do not violate any law"explains Caroline Sinders, a specialist in automated learning and the links between technology and harassment, in the columns of Guardian. This in a context where Ring has filed a patent to introduce a facial recognition technology, so that a device can, for example, give the alert in case of detection of a wanted person.
The company, meanwhile, defended itself against these recent concerns by ensuring that "Users always have control of the information they share" and that their personal information is protected. She also praises the merits of her system for neighborhood security, citing some success stories:
"A Virginia Beach family was able to quickly find medical equipment for their diabetic child after sharing a video of the package theft on the Neighbor application. Through the app, a neighbor spotted the suspect and alerted the local law enforcement officers who made the arrest and located the package. "
This is not the first time that Amazon has collaborated with the police. The company had, among other things, alienated some of its employees for allowing law enforcement agencies, including US immigration services, to use its facial recognition technology, Rekognition.