Ring Neighbors Is the Best and Worst Neighborhood Watch App

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Security cameras and doorbell cameras can make people feel safer, but they also raise privacy concerns. Over the past year, a rash of news stories have focused on Neighbors, a feature that’s part of the Ring ecosystem. Specifically, the Internet has been abuzz over Amazon’s decision to work with law enforcement, which allows agencies to push emergency information out to users, but also can provide a direct feed of public user activity to connected police departments. We share our readers’ concerns and skepticism over some of the company’s practices and claims. We thoroughly investigated Ring’s policies and partnerships, and spoke with Ring officials as well as several partners from across the country to vet Neighbors’s and Ring’s policies, and we will continue to keep up with them. For now, here’s what we consider to be the good, the bad, and the questionable practices surrounding Neighbors and Ring, which currently holds a top spot in our home security systems guide.

What is Neighbors?

Neighbors is Ring’s free, app-based neighborhood watch feature that alerts you to crime and safety events in a radius up to 5 miles around your home. Neighbors is built into the Ring app, which you use with Amazon’s Ring doorbells, Ring cameras, the Ring Alarm system, and even Ring Smart Lights. However, you don’t need any Ring devices to use Neighbors, because the company also offers a standalone Neighbors app for iOS and Android devices.

Posts you make to the Neighbors app remain anonymous. According to Ring’s terms of service, users should only post about crime, safety, suspicious activity, and lost pets, but are also encouraged to include acts of kindness.

Once you create a post, it shows up in two spots in the app: on a map of the designated area and in a timeline, along with photos and video, if you shared those as well. You do not have to share photos or video to create a Neighbors post.

Why Neighbors is appealing

Neighbors can be a great service for anyone who has concerns about crime in their area, be it petty or grand. Its social-app-like feed provides real-time crime and safety alerts from both your neighbors and local police and fire departments in a convenient, helpful way. In some ways, Neighbors is similar to the social app Nextdoor, encouraging users to report Safety, Crime and Lost Pet alerts, as well as when you spot a Neighborly Moment (but you can customize your feed so you see only the info that interests you).

Screenshot of the Ring Neighbors application, showing the news feed for "Sunset Park"
Ring Neighbors allows you to share security-related events (including videos your security camera recorded) to the timeline. It also lets you see posts from other users as well as from municipal authorities.

Robin Tillett, public relations and information manager for the Lakeland Police Department in Lakeland, Florida, said in an interview that Ring and other citizen cameras provide real value to law enforcement. “Any time, in any type of criminal case, if we can get photos or video, that’s a huge advantage,” she said. There are no actual stats to show whether these types of devices lead to more arrests, but Neighbors does provide police and fire departments a seamless way to broadcast information about crucial safety issues—such as fires, car accidents, or police activity—to an entire community. To find out if your local police department is part of the Neighbors program, go into the Control Center in the Ring app, click on Video Requests, and scroll down to View Active Agency map. This map shows every police department that participates in the Neighbors program, where they are located, when they joined, and how many video requests they’ve sent to users in the most recent quarter.

What we don’t like about Neighbors

Even though Ring claims that Neighbors is an “opt-in” program, in reality you’re automatically enrolled when you sign up for a Ring account—and you have to do that to install or use a Ring device, such as a doorbell camera, a security system, or even a pathway light. To distance yourself from Neighbors, you could simply refrain from posting, turn off all of its notifications, or disable Neighbors completely. To do the latter, go into the Control Center, scroll down to Neighbors, and click to disable the service. A Ring rep told us that doing this will remove Neighbors from your Ring app, as well as remove you from the pool of 10 million active monthly Neighbors users. Disabling Neighbors doesn’t shield you from Video Requests from law enforcement, but you can also choose to opt out of those in your Control Center settings.

When asked on two separate occasions, a Ring representative stated on the record that the company “will not disclose user videos to law enforcement unless the user expressly consents or if disclosure is required by law, such as to comply with a warrant.” However, the language in Ring’s privacy policy states otherwise, and specifies that the company may also supply customer footage without notice in order to defend the company’s legal rights, “to prevent physical or other harm,” or when “in connection with an investigation of suspected or actual illegal activity.”

This is a fairly standard clause for security camera manufacturers. However, Mohammad Tajsar, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, points out that this type of language provides a broad loophole for Ring. “There is no enforcing mechanism to hold the line on what these companies and law enforcement partners say,” he said. “The only thing that can bind them, in theory, is either their privacy policies, which are often changing on us, and/or some other regulatory schemes that can prevent the kind of concerns that we have.” A few states, such as Illinois and Texas, have laws governing biometric data, while San Francisco and others recently banned the use of facial recognition by police and city government agencies. But as Tajsar notes, there are still no federal privacy regulations to cover the use of home security cameras, so users currently have little to go on beyond what the company states in its privacy policy—which often pushes local and state regulations back as a responsibility of the homeowner. In short, Ring owners are forced to trust that the company and all of its partners will strictly follow the terms of its privacy policy, which leaves plenty of room for potential abuse.

Another concern is that Amazon is a private company leveraging the influence of municipal authorities to market its products. Last year, it was reported that Amazon had been supplying a number of police departments around the country with free Ring cameras with the intent that police would distribute them to local residents, and presumably with the hope that those residents would buy more Ring devices, or that their neighbors would. A Ring rep told us that as of April 2020, the company no longer supplies free doorbells and/or any video products to law enforcement agencies anywhere for the purpose of distributing or giving them away to local users.

Wirecutter spoke to two representatives of the Lakeland Police Department in Lakeland, Florida, which has partnered with Ring, and the representatives pointed out that the police department promotes the use of a number of security devices beyond those from Ring, including from brands such as Nest, Arlo, and SimpliSafe. “We recommend to people anything that’s security, whether it’s an alarm system, cameras, a good dog … anything that can help you be more secure in your home,” Lakeland spokesperson Robin Tillett said.

We should note that the practice of municipal organizations giving away safety or security products is relatively common, with various localities offering bike helmets, smoke detectors, and respirator masks. Of course, Ring cameras are very different from those things: They record your family and friends, but also strangers who may just be passing by. They require you to sign up for a subscription if you want to take advantage of capabilities beyond live viewing. And some of that information about yourself and your habits could end up in the hands of third-party services hired for analytics and marketing purposes. In other words, the situation is a bit more complex, and even law enforcement agencies may not be fully aware of the implications.

One such issue, which has been exacerbated by community social networks and neighborhood watch programs, is racial profiling. In our research and reporting, we asked every interview subject whether Neighbors could create a false sense of fear and promote racial profiling—an issue that the nonprofit digital privacy and online advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation raised recently. According to Eric Kuhn, general manager of Neighbors, all posts on Neighbors are “proactively moderated” as Ring makes sure they adhere to the company’s guidelines, which include prohibition of racial profiling, but the company also relies on other users to flag anything inappropriate. Still, a recent Vice report investigated over 100 user-submitted Neighbors videos over a two-month period and found that the majority of them included people of color.

Separating rumor from reality

A number of news articles have focused on Ring, Neighbors, and Ring’s partnerships with police. We know there is a lot of uncertainty out there, but we also believe that some of the coverage has carried misleading headlines, and we have attempted to sort, to the best of our knowledge, the facts and legitimate fears from inaccurate information.

No one at Ring, nor any police department, is allowed to access Ring videos or personal information unless device owners choose to share them via Neighbors. And even if you do post a video to the Neighbors app, your identity and your contact information remain anonymous. For law enforcement officials to access video from any Ring camera, they first need to get explicit permission from the camera’s owner, which they can request via a general post in the Neighbors app (which identifies the request as coming from police) or via an exclusive law enforcement portal that Ring handles. Owners can opt out of receiving requests by going into the Control Center in the Ring app, clicking on Video Requests, and disabling the feature. If you receive a request from law enforcement, there are three ways to respond: share all of your videos from a requested timeline, select specific videos from that timeline, or simply do nothing. Should you agree to share video, only then do police receive your contact information. (Wirecutter reviewed the actual email request form that Ring sends out. It alerts the user that agreeing to share video also includes supplying their email and street addresses.)

As with non-smart cameras plus devices from other companies like Nest, Arlo, or anyone else, it’s also possible for police to physically canvas an area in search of cameras and then directly subpoena Amazon for video, as Ring states on its website. Some articles have suggested that doing so could be a method for police to bypass Ring’s stringent owner-permissions policy. Police officials whom Wirecutter spoke with, however, stated they have never attempted such an action and made it clear that gaining a subpoena is still not an easy process. “[Police] still go through the legal system to get any type of subpoena,” said Sergeant Christopher Botzum of the Joliet Police Department in Joliet, Illinois. “And we have to have probable cause to believe that there’s video there—[you can’t get a subpoena] just because they have a camera.”

Eric Kuhn, general manager of Neighbors, stressed that Ring is aware of the concerns of Ring device owners. “Our goal is to make sure that our users feel like their privacy and security is protected,” Kuhn said. “We’ve designed the system to limit the amount of information that goes to law enforcement unless users want to proactively share that information.” Similarly, police representatives acknowledged the importance of respecting the privacy of Ring owners. “If the community trusts us not to sit there and obviously invade their privacy, we feel that they’ll be more willing to give us information,” said Botzum.

And finally, rumors have swirled about what sorts of requirements law enforcement agencies are subject to in partnering with Ring, including secret agreements and a supposed requirement to “shill” Ring cameras. In reporting this story, Wirecutter found that Ring lists law enforcement partnership opportunities clearly on its Neighbors website, and police departments often announce the partnerships in press releases. In fact, law enforcement agencies are required to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) when partnering with Ring, but it’s a nonbinding boilerplate document that every participating law enforcement agency has signed, and the terms are unenforceable—they’re more like a list of suggestions than a contract. The Lakeland Police Department told us those agreements are also public record, which means anyone can request to see them (though open-records laws vary by state [PDF]). Ring does provide blurbs, scripts, and press releases to police departments—a common public relations tactic—but the company recognizes that police departments are not obligated to use them.

Issues on the horizon

Ring’s devices and services share a lot of turf with those from other high-profile companies, so the controversy surrounding Ring’s products deserves to be shared, too. And because smart devices are relatively new, powerful, and evolving quickly, it’s certain that a whole crop of new privacy and security concerns are on the way.

For instance, although Ring currently doesn’t offer facial-recognition technology, there’s been buzz indicating that it’s in the works, and it’s clearly mentioned in the Ring privacy policy. And Amazon filed a patent noting that this tech could serve “to determine whether the video contains a known criminal (e.g., convicted felon, sex offender, person on a ‘most wanted’ list, etc.) or a suspicious person,” and that the information could go directly to police. Notably, some Nest cameras already offer facial recognition.

Companies routinely rely on their privacy policies and their terms and conditions to bury objectionable or controversial policies. Wirecutter reviewed the privacy policies for Ring and Neighbors and found that they include a number of clauses that do feel dicey: the right to collect contact information, details about your Wi-Fi network, connections to third-party services (which have their own policies), and other personal info. However, those are also standard for most camera and security companies, as well as smart-home companies in general. As Robert Siciliano, privacy expert and CEO of Safr.me, noted, the issue is that most people don’t bother to read such policies from any company and would be shocked if they did. “If people read them from end-to-end, they wouldn’t agree to anything, ever, for pretty much anything and everything that we [already do] agree to,” said Siciliano.

Ultimately, Siciliano said, it’s up to buyers to weigh the benefits and risks of using services like Neighbors or any other smart device. “I give up a certain level of privacy or personal security for the convenience of being able to look in on my family while I’m on the road,” he said.

Sources

1. Christopher Botzum, administration sergeant, Joliet Police Department, Joliet, Illinois, phone interview, August 8, 2019

2. Amy Forliti and Matt O’Brien, Fast-growing web of doorbell cams raises privacy fears, Associated Press, July 19, 2019

3. Matthew Guariglia, Amazon’s Ring Is a Perfect Storm of Privacy Threats, Electronic Frontier Foundation, August 8, 2019

4. Caroline Haskins, Amazon’s Home Security Company Is Turning Everyone Into Cops, Vice, February 7, 2019

5. Caroline Haskins, Amazon Told Police It Has Partnered With 200 Law Enforcement Agencies, Vice, July 29, 2019

6. Eric Kuhn, general manager of Neighbors, Ring, phone interview, August 7, 2019

7. Robert Siciliano, CEO, Safr.me, phone interview, August 8, 2019

8. Sam Taylor, assistant chief of police, Lakeland Police Department, Lakeland, Florida, August 1, 2019

9. Robin Tillett, public relations and information manager, Lakeland Police Department, Lakeland, Florida, phone interview, August 1, 2019

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