Police might be able to see throughout neighborhoods using Ring’s video doorbells, but that transparency doesn’t go both ways. In documents sent to police in Illinois, Amazon’s Ring unit instructs officers on exactly what law enforcement shouldn’t share with the public.
But through public documents and interviews with police, we’re able to explain exactly what those features are.
Ring has partnered with scores of police departments across the country, though the details of those relationships are often limited. For example, Ring still declines to provide the full number of police partnerships, leaving privacy advocates to figure out those numbers through public data requests. Privacy researcher Shreyas Gandlur released a map showing every Ring police partnership he could find, totaling 250 as of Aug. 19.
That’s not the only detail Ring and police are keeping secret. In email exchanges between Ring and the Bensenville, Illinois, police department in July, the Amazon-owned company — Amazon purchased Ring in 2018 for $839 million — detailed what tools should be kept confidential.
“Neighbors Portal back-end features should not be shared with the public, including the law enforcement portal on desktop view, the heat map, sample video request emails or the video request process itself as they often contain sensitive investigative information,” a Ring associate wrote to police, according to FOIA documents sent to Gandlur.
Bensenville police chief Daniel Schulze declined to comment and referred questions to Ring. A Ring spokesperson sent the following statement:
“The Neighbors law enforcement portal contains the video request feature. Law enforcement can submit video requests for users in a given area when investigating an active case. Ring facilitates these requests and user consent is required in order for any footage or information to be shared. Law enforcement cannot see how many Ring users received the request or who declined to share, but if a user consents to sharing a video clip, that footage and information is sent directly to law enforcement through the Neighbors law enforcement portal.”
While Ring and police don’t share details about these tools, documents from FOIA requests and previous interviews with officers provide insight on these secretive features. Here’s what we know:
Law enforcement portal
The law enforcement portal is a special section of Ring’s Neighbors app that only police partnered with the company can access.
Neighbors is an app released by Ring in May 2018, advertised as a “digital neighborhood watch.” Residents can post videos of potential burglaries or crime alerts to warn their neighbors. Sometimes the clips can be quirky, showing things like animals running across people’s lawns.
When police partner with Ring, they have access to all of this, plus a portal specifically for law enforcement. That portal allows police to request footage from residents on the app, to comment on the posts, to send messages to people and to receive videos sent from people.
The Intercept published screenshots of the portal from a promotional Ring video in February, shortly after the clip was taken offline. The screenshots showed that police could see where each camera was, as well as alerts from both citizens and police.
Police are able to geofence specific areas to request footage through the app and mass-message everyone on the app in that region.
“We could digitally cover a block in a few seconds if people were monitoring the app closely,” Mountain Brook, Alabama, police chief Ted Cook told CNET in May. “Right now, people would have to be home for us to ask for video. Now they can do that from their office, while they’re at work, while they’re on vacation, anywhere they happen to be.”
It’s unclear if this policy on keeping the portal secret has changed since July. Ring CEO Jamie Siminoff published a blog post on Aug. 2 explaining how Portal works.
In documents sent to police, Ring encourages police to post frequently on the Neighbors app, including advice to “comment on every Neighbor post.”
“The more your community sees your involvement, the more effect Portal features become when interacting with them,” Ring wrote to the Bensenville police on July 15.
There are at least two different kinds of heat maps police received through Ring.
Police have access to a heat map showing where Ring doorbells are concentrated. The redder it is on the map, the more Ring cameras there are. CNET obtained a screenshot of the heat map in Bloomfield, New Jersey, during an interview in May with the city’s police.
The map showed that the entire town was covered in Ring cameras, which would allow police to request footage from virtually anywhere in the neighborhood.
For other police departments, the heat map is a tool that could help show where to distribute free video doorbells that Ring provides to law enforcement.
Police in Hampton, Virginia, partnered with Ring in March and received 15 free cameras, plus one free camera for every 20 people who signed up. The department said it doesn’t have exact numbers on how many people in the town have Ring cameras but said the heat map has helped provide a sense of how widespread they are.
“As you use that heat map, you can get a general area,” Sgt. R.C. Williams, Hampton police’s public information officer, told CNET in May. “It covers a good portion of the community, but there are certain areas that are not covered.”
At the time, the department said it was working with its crime analysis team to figure out where to distribute Ring cameras.
The other kind of heat map was detailed in public documents sent to Motherboard. According to the report, Amazon created heat maps showing where packages were lost and shared it with police. The tech giant then helped police organize sting operations using Ring doorbells in attempts to catch package thieves. Ring said it didn’t create that map and only provides the heat map of cameras available to police.
Video request process
The video request process happens through Ring’s Portal for law enforcement agencies.
Ring has been coaching police departments through webinars and emails on how to approach residents when they need footage through the app.
Officers are told to request footage through the portal, and Ring provided a sample video request in its instructions to the Bensenville police.
The sample request asks for details on a car break-in from a specific date and time, then asks residents to send any relevant footage to the police’s email address and phone number.
In a video request sent on July 11 from Bensenville police, the department sought footage related to an investigation into car thefts in a particular neighborhood. It requested footage from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on July 10.
The request didn’t limit people to only send footage related to the request — everything in that 10-hour range would be sent, documents showed.
“By choosing to share your Ring videos, the Bensenville Police Department will receive all of your video recordings in the requested time frame, along with your email address and physical address,” the video request informed residents in the geofenced area.
Even when police don’t get footage from requests on the Ring app, they can reportedly obtain them from Amazon itself through subpoenas, according to GovTech.
Police have also told CNET in the past that they’ve shown up at known Ring users’ doorsteps to request footage in person if the online requests don’t pan out.