Amazon’s Ring and Google Can Share Footage With Police Without Warrants (or Your Consent)
U.S. law let’s companies like Google and Amazon’s Ring doorbell/security camera system “share user footage with police during emergencies without consent and without warrants.” That revelation “came under renewed criticism from privacy activists this month after disclosing it gave video footage to police in more than 10 cases without users’ consent thus far in 2022 in what it described as ’emergency situations’.”
“That includes instances where the police didn’t have a warrant.”
“So far this year, Ring has provided videos to law enforcement in response to an emergency request only 11 times,” Amazon vice president of public policy Brian Huseman wrote. “In each instance, Ring made a good-faith determination that there was an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to a person requiring disclosure of information without delay….” Of the 11 emergency requests Ring has complied with so far in 2022, the company said they include cases involving kidnapping, self-harm and attempted murder, but it won’t provide further details, including information about which agencies or countries the requests came from.
We also asked Ring if it notified customers after the company had granted law enforcement access to their footage without their consent.
“We have nothing to share,” the spokesperson responded.
It’s been barely a year since Ring made the decision to stop allowing police to email users to request footage. Facing criticism that requests like those were subverting the warrant process and contributing to police overreach, Ring directed police instead to post public requests for assistance in the Neighbors app, where community members are free to view and comment on them (or opt out of seeing them altogether)… That post made no mention of a workaround for the police during emergency circumstances.
When CNET asked why that workaround wasn’t mentioned, Amazon response was that law enforcement requests, “including emergency requests, are directed to Ring (the company), the same way a warrant or subpoena is directed to Ring (and not the customer), which is why we treat them entirely separately.”
CNET notes there’s also no mention of warrantless emergency requests without independent oversight in Ring’s own transparency reports about law enforcement requests from past years.
CNET adds that it’s not just Amazon. “Google, Ring and other companies that process user video footage have a legal basis for warrantless disclosure without consent during emergency situations, and it’s up to them to decide whether or not to do so when the police come calling….” (Although Google told CNET that while it reserves the right to comply with warrantless requests for user data during emergencies, to date it has never actually done so.) The article also points out that “Others, most notably Apple, use end-to-end encryption as the default setting for user video, which blocks the company from sharing that video at all… Ring enabled end-to-end encryption as an option for users in 2021, but it isn’t the default setting, and Ring notes that turning it on will break certain features, including the ability to view your video feed on a third-party device like a smart TV, or even Amazon devices like the Echo Show smart display.”
The bottom line?[C]onsumers have a choice to make about what they’re comfortable with… That said, you can’t make informed choices when you aren’t well-informed to begin with, and the brands in question don’t always make it easy to understand their policies and practices. Ring published a blog post last year walking through its new, public-facing format for police footage requests, but there was no mention of emergency exceptions granted without user consent or independent oversight, the details of which only came to light after a Senate probe. Google describes its emergency sharing policies within its Terms of Service, but the language doesn’t make it clear that those cases include instances where footage may be shared without a warrant, subpoena or court order compelling Google to do so.