OpEd | The case against Amazon’s Ring doorbell


On July 23, the Peoria City Council entered into a contract with Ring Security, owned by Amazon, to provide discounted Ring security cameras to Peoria residents. The city council shelled out $50,000 to bring the cost down. Peoria residents will receive a $50 discount from the city and receive another $50 off from Ring, bringing the price down to about $100.

The doorbells allow residents to record events in front of their homes, even if they aren’t home. The recording activates when the doorbell is rung or there is movement in front of the sensor. Councilmember Jim Montelongo championed various anecdotal accounts of the Ring doorbell rescuing kidnap victims and reducing crime. He stated this would be a pilot program that if successful could lead to further security camera giveaways by the city.

Yet, there are several security and privacy questions that should be asked. An impetus for this giveaway is the possibility for residents to share their private videos with law enforcement to potentially catch criminals. Montelongo stressed that Ring users must opt-in before Amazon or law enforcement can review people’s private videos. But, Amazon’s privacy policy states otherwise and specifies multiple loopholes around this, according to www.thewirecutter.com.

Ultimately, Amazon’s own often-changing policy is the only thing binding Amazon to these rules, and Amazon has a particularly sketchy –– if not outright insidious –– history around customer privacy.

Earlier this year, Amazon was criticized for another recording device, Alexa. “Many smart-speaker owners don’t realize it, but Amazon keeps a copy of everything Alexa records after it hears its name,” according to Geoffrey A. Fowler in an article in the Washington Post. Furthermore, Amazon has complete access to these recordings as well as location data for the customers.

What does Amazon use these recordings for? Ostensibly, it’s for product improvement. But, Amazon can also use the Ring doorbell recordings to improve its own patented facial recognition software. Amazon has made big money selling this software to immigration enforcement, assisting in our brutal deportation policies, according to Technology Review.

Evolving surveillance technologies in the hands of the state have routinely led to the persecution of innocent people. But, the Peoria City Council seems uninterested in its complicity forcing this questionable technology on Peoria residents with their own tax dollars.

Defenders of the program will likely point out that it is not mandatory for residents to obtain this product. However, along for the ride is an app called Neighbor. This app allows a Ring user to share security recordings with those in their neighborhood and also receive updates from both the local police and Ring. It’s in Amazon’s best interest to keep communities in continual fear of crime in order to sell more Ring products, regardless of whether crime is actually higher or lower in an area. Amazon’s recommendation is to report any suspicious behavior directly to the police no matter how frivolous. Amazon is creating a neighborhood watch in Peoria; a watch where petty suspicions are policed heavily and racism is common. According to Vice.com, “video posts on Neighbors disproportionately depict people of color, and descriptions often use racist language or make racist assumptions about the people shown.” This social-media app encourages residents to fear the worst about their own neighbors, subverting hopes of greater community solidarity all for the benefit of a mega-corporation’s profit margin. Even if one doesn’t opt-in to purchasing a Ring product or utilizing the Neighbor app, we still live in a society strongly influenced by social media. In a way, you can’t escape the effects of that.

Peoria will essentially be paying for a giant ad for Amazon. Instead of that $50,000 going towards education, infrastructure or mental health in high-crime areas, the city just assisted Amazon in its own marketing scheme.

Zachary Gittrich is a social activist and blogger from Central Illinois. Find his blog at strangecornersofthought.com.

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