Tools like Amazon Ring’s doorbell system are often touted as a solution to safety concerns. But the reality hiding behind this seemingly simple tool reveals a much darker, deeper, and growing network that uses our privacy as currency.

The COVID crisis, with new requirements for social distancing and working from home, has made us even more reliant on technology. From Zoom calls, to being able to see who is at our door without ever getting up, this technology is more convenient than ever. However, this convenience and comfort comes at a steep cost: billion-dollar companies like Amazon swapping our most intimate personal data.

The companies creating this type of smart technology emphasize the need to gather our data to help make the devices even smarter, promising us a better and more personalized experience. The reality is much darker. With a collection of household electronic devices inside your home and out, companies are building a network of third parties with whom they can share the data those devices collect.

This means that every time we bring home new technology, we give up our privacy and put our personal data into the hands of others. Those hands could belong to other companies or even government agencies. Such public-private partnerships are often created in the name of security, but in reality, harm our privacy and civil rights. 

Just take a look at Amazon’s Ring doorbell system, which as of October 2020, brings with it a network of more than 1,550 law enforcement agencies across the country. All of those agencies are now able to access video footage collected by Ring’s doorbell system—footage that captures activities at the home’s doorstep, the street, and often even the homes across the street. By partnering with Amazon, our government has essentially built an entirely new surveillance system that’s always watching – but never asking for permission.

Throughout this summer, we heard a number of public voices advocate for the widespread adoption of smart doorbell security cameras like Amazon Ring to help address crime. Most recently, Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez introduced a proposal at a city council meeting calling for the Chicago Police Department to join forces with companies like Amazon Ring, ADT, Vivint and “otherdoorbell security camera operators whose systems are compatible with cameras already linked to the city’s 911 emergency center.”  And as of October 2020, CPD acted on this by introducing the RING Neighbors for Law Enforcement Portal Pilot Program.

While some think that adding thousands of new cameras for local law enforcement is a good thing, the reality raises concerns about privacy implications, racial profiling, and less than transparent public-private partnerships – all while expanding the “Big Brother” surveillance overreach we have already seen in major cities like Chicago.  In fact, the most recent partnership by CPD does not even require ownership of a Ring product for access.  Instead, it relies on a “commercially available, free-to-use, software application,” which allows subscribers to get “real-time crime and safety alerts from participating neighbors and local law enforcement.”

This Orwellian reality is even scarier when we consider the recent announcement out of Jackson, Mississippi, committing to the launch of a 45-day pilot program live streaming Ring camera footage to the police. The program would allow owners of Ring devices to patch the camera streams from their front doors directly to the city’s Real Time Crime Center.  This means that anyone walking their dog, taking out the trash, delivering packages, or simply walking past a Ring-equipped front door is now victim to police scrutiny; regardless of whether they consent to having their footage used in this way or not.

We have seen from the past that an increase in camera surveillance of neighborhoods does not mean that more crimes are being solved. In fact, a study examining the impact of Ring technology in Aurora found that property crime had actually fallen by a slightly greater percentage the year before the Aurora Police Department’s partnership with Amazon.

Moreover, reliance on this type of technology can increase worry and fear among residents, which results in a larger number of false alarms and handing over hours of video footage of neighbors - who never consented to be filmed in the first place - into the hands of law enforcement. This also highlights the greater racial disparities among people reported for potentially criminal behavior because of doorbell cameras.

The inefficiency of this technology, coupled with a distrust of law enforcement within communities of color, exacerbates the harm of deceptive advertising adopted by companies like Amazon. When we see advertisements for Amazon’s Ring, it is very apparent that these government-sponsored surveillance systems are not advertised. We are not shown the data-sharing schemes these companies have entered into, nor are we shown how much data this technology is actually able to collect.

Amazon is only one example of the many corporations building and marketing technology that profit by sharing our data. This leaves consumers with the responsibility to do our own due diligence by researching every product we are considering - or even offered for free.

Do we take advantage of this this new technology because it’s convenient? Is the potential feeling of comfort offered by the device worth the privacy we are giving up? Those should not be our only options. We should not have to choose between protecting our privacy and helpful technology that can add value to our lives.

Luckily, the solution is right in front of us: law enforcement and companies like Amazon should not partner up and use our privacy as currency. Until that happens, residents will continue to live in fear that thousands of government eyes will watch their every move, even as they enter their own home, visit a friend, or walk their dog on the street. That type of government overreach is the last thing Illinois needs right now.