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How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras

Partnerships with law enforcement give smart cameras to the survivors of domestic violence. But who does it really help?

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence
Joan Wong
September 20, 2021

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Eileen Guo is an Ida B. Wells Fellow, and is being co-published by MIT Technology Review and Consumer Reports.

A few hours before dawn in early May of last year, four police officers were dispatched to an address that they had come to know: the home of Gemma Smith in Cape Coral, Florida. (Her name has been changed because of the sensitivity of the crimes described.) 

There, they arrested the man who had broken into and entered the home: Smith’s ex-boyfriend of almost 15 years, the father of her young daughter and, for most of their relationship, the perpetrator of her physical and emotional abuse. It was the second time in six months that officers in the city of almost 200,000 people on Florida’s southwest coast had responded to a call that Smith’s ex-boyfriend had violated an order of protection.

Her ex claimed to have entered through a window. But thanks to a new tool in their arsenal, the police could show otherwise. As part of a program to combat domestic violence, Smith had been loaned an Amazon Ring doorbell camera. The video showed the suspect letting himself into her home with a key that, until then, she didn’t know he had. 

The deputies on the scene confiscated the key, and Smith sent them the Ring camera footage, which they used to press charges for burglary and violation of the injunction. 

"A much wider system of surveillance"

When Ring launched eight years ago with a crowdfunding campaign, the market for home surveillance cameras and video doorbells barely existed. Now Ring has it cornered: in 2020, the company sold an estimated 1.4 million devices globally—as much as the next four competitors combined, according to a report by the business intelligence company Strategy Analytics. Many consumers are drawn in by Ring’s central marketing pitch: that the cameras can reduce crime by making it easy to keep an eye on people’s front porches, driveways, and—often—passersby. The company’s acquisition by Amazon in 2018 has further expanded Ring’s reach, as have its close partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Ring has partnered with more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies and 360 fire departments across the United States, providing free doorbell cameras to police officers, fire fighters, and members of the public, usually in exchange for promoting Ring and the Neighbors app.

As a result of these partnerships, police forces around the country are awash in Ring cameras. Ring gave free devices to individual officers as well as entire departments from 2016 to January 2020, often in exchange for promoting the cameras and their accompanying social network and app, Neighbors by Ring. Until June 2021, the company also provided a special Neighbors portal that let law enforcement request access to footage from Ring owners, even if they had not posted it publicly.

Today, more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies across the US use the Neighbors app, along with more than 360 fire departments. Ring’s partnerships with many police forces give the participating departments a “much wider system of surveillance than police legally could build themselves,” as Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, wrote in a June 2020 letter to Amazon. 

Despite the company’s focus on police partnerships, it’s unclear how much the cameras actually help in deterring or solving crimes. After its first pilot project in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2015, Ring said the presence of its cameras had reduced burglaries in the neighborhood by 55% from the previous year, but the figure could not be replicated by independent analysis. 

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups have raised concerns about how Ring’s cameras and app may lead to racial profiling, excessive surveillance by police, and a loss of privacy—not just for the consumers who purchased the cameras and opted in to Ring’s privacy policies, but also for every passerby caught on a camera. 

As these doorbell cameras have become more widespread, law enforcement agencies have experimented with using them in more targeted ways, including to address one of the most intimate and complicated of crimes: domestic violence. 

That was how there came to be a Ring video doorbell mounted next to Gemma Smith’s front door. A program started in Cape Coral in 2019, designed in close collaboration with Ring, offered video doorbells free to domestic violence survivors “as an additional resource for them to feel safe in their residence and potentially assist in the prosecution of their offenders,” according to Cape Coral Police Department documents obtained through a public records request. Ring helped start similar programs elsewhere. Shortly after Cape Coral’s pilot began, two initiatives were launched in Texas, with the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) and the Sheriff’s Office for Bexar County, which surrounds the city.

There is a logic to these programs. After all, who would be more concerned about a potentially dangerous visitor at their door than someone who had just left an abusive partner? 

In 2019, Ring and local law enforcement agencies in Florida and Texas launched new pilot programs offering free cameras to hundreds of domestic violence survivors, building off of existing partnerships.

But some domestic violence experts are concerned that these initiatives inject a combination of potentially dangerous factors into the lives of those they are supposed to protect: law enforcement that doesn’t always listen to survivors; a technology company with a patchy record on privacy and transparency; and programs launched without much department oversight—or input from experts on domestic violence. 

Technologies such as Ring cameras “make the process of intervening in domestic violence more convenient, maybe more efficient,” says Laura Brignone, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the intersection of technology and violence against women. “But they don’t necessarily make it better.” 

And yet the programs are expanding, according to a yearlong investigation conducted by Consumer Reports, Type Investigations, and MIT Technology Review. Email correspondence shows that the state of Florida received approval from the federal Department of Justice to use Crime Victims Fund money to provide doorbell cameras to domestic violence survivors statewide. (The expansion was put on pause in 2020 when the nonprofit partner the state was planning to work with was investigated for potential fraud.) In addition, a large new program is launching in Harris County, Texas.

Ring’s involvement with these programs has both domestic violence advocates and privacy experts raising concerns. Ring cameras are controversial even for use by the average consumer, and the concerns are heightened for people facing the emotionally fraught crimes of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault. Experts question whether these always-on surveillance devices, provided by police departments with close ties to Ring marketing representatives, are really the right tools to make survivors safer.

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence

How domestic violence is policed

Domestic violence affects an estimated one in three US adults at some point during their lives. It accounts for more than 40% of all murders of women—856 deaths in 2017, according to the latest CDC figures.

Law enforcement has a flawed record of responding to the problem. Domestic violence generates the largest single category of calls to police, according to a 2009 Department of Justice report, but advocates for domestic violence survivors have long criticized police for either failing to take allegations of abuse seriously, or responding with a narrow approach of protective orders, arrests, and prosecutions that don’t always help the victims. 

“I think police officers are put in a very difficult position when it comes to domestic violence,” says Abbie Tuller, who ran a domestic violence shelter in New York City for years before pursuing a PhD at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, where her doctoral dissertation is on domestic violence policy interventions. “The tools and tactics that they’ve been taught to help the victim are not necessarily how it plays out with domestic violence survivors.”

Even so, when one of the biggest technology companies in the world offers free cameras to help address the problem, it can be an attractive proposition. The police feel that they’re getting an always available sentinel standing guard in front of the homes of repeat victims of crime. 

However, “the reality is that [police intervention] may not be the safest thing,” says Tuller, who now has a private therapy practice and teaches at CUNY as an adjunct assistant professor. “Sometimes it can be the most dangerous because it’s taking a situation and escalating it.” 

To qualify, get an injunction

When the Ring pilot programs started in 2019, they were small. Bexar County set aside 50 cameras for “stalking victims, family violence victims, anybody with a protective order,” Sheriff Javier Salazar said in a press statement when the program launched. Cape Coral allocated 100 devices for domestic violence survivors, and San Antonio allocated 171 devices to survivors of family violence and sexual assault who had filed police reports. In Cape Coral, the domestic violence program was initially meant to run for a year. 

Former Cape Coral police chief David Newlan says he came up with the idea for that city’s program after a 2017 case in which domestic violence escalated into a murder-suicide. The perpetrator had been barred from approaching the victim by a restraining order, and he was required to wear an ankle bracelet monitored by a third-party company. On the day of the murder, the monitoring company failed to notify the police when he violated the injunction by approaching the victim’s home. “​​If I was a victim, I wouldn’t want to be dependent upon a third party, especially in a different state, monitoring a bracelet,” Newlan says. “I’d want to have that same access myself, so I can actually know, if I’m the victim, what’s going on.”

The San Antonio Police Department’s program started after Ring approached the city’s domestic violence coalition, “and presented them with this idea of having the Ring systems given to law enforcement,” according to Aaron Gamez, an SAPD community services specialist who then designed the program. 

In Bexar County, some devices had already been donated to the sheriff’s office in exchange for the office promoting the Neighbors app. Emails show that Ring planned to send the sheriff’s office 15 cameras for 279 app downloads by residents in September 2018 alone, which Ring rounded up to 300. (It’s not clear whether these cameras were ultimately used in the domestic violence program.)

All the domestic violence programs placed requirements on survivors who wanted to participate. In San Antonio, individuals must have first filed a relevant police report. In Cape Coral, a protective order was required, and anyone receiving a camera had to agree to hand over Ring footage to the police if asked, or risk losing the camera. Bexar County required “that the survivor be fully cooperative with law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office” in prosecuting the case, according to an emailed statement from the department’s public information office.

To recruit participants, a victims’ advocate typically would reach out after an incident of violence, or when a police report had been filed or an injunction granted. San Antonio, which runs the largest of the three programs, would conduct a threat assessment of survivors interested in the program, considering factors such as whether the case involved weapons, stalking, a history of protective-order violations, or escalating violence. San Antonio did not require participants to have protective orders, but took them into account as one factor when deciding whom to accept into the program.

SAPD also put a lot of weight on whether individual investigating officers felt like a camera would be “beneficial to the case,” either by providing an additional layer of security to the survivor or offering evidence that could strengthen a prosecutor’s hand, Gamez says. 

In Bexar County, devices were donated to the sheriff’s office in exchange for the office promoting the Neighbors app. Emails show Ring planned to send the sheriff’s office 15 cameras for 279 app downloads by residents in September 2018 alone.

Smith, in Cape Coral, received her camera in early 2020, shortly after her ex had violated the protective order she had taken out against him. She was visited by a victim services advocate, Christine Seymour, who ran Cape Coral’s camera program. Smith says she had heard of Ring but had never thought about purchasing one of the video doorbells herself. But when the service was offered free—the device normally costs at least $99, plus an optional annual video storage subscription fee of at least $30—she said yes. 

Seymour had the camera with her, but the police department was not responsible for installing it—Smith’s father did it for her. Seymour also gave Smith a “participant agreement”—a contract between those receiving cameras and the Cape Coral Police Department. Anyone taking part agreed to keep their injunctions active. Participants also acknowledged, “I may be removed from the program if I refuse to provide requested footage” to the police. 

It’s not clear how popular these programs have been. The San Antonio program distributed 158 of its 171 cameras. However, in the first year of Bexar County’s program, no more than 15 survivors signed up for one of its 50 cameras, according to Rosalinda Hibron-Pineda, a victim services specialist at the sheriff’s office. And in Cape Coral, where 100 cameras were available, Seymour said that only 24 had been given out. 

“We really thought we would be more inundated,” Seymour said in a phone interview in September 2020. “We’re really not, which is kind of a nice thing.” Many people had expressed interest, she added, only to change their minds when they were told an injunction would be required. When a survivor expressed those doubts, Seymour said she told them, “Well, I’m sorry, then you won’t qualify.”

Without giving law enforcement the tools to arrest and jail abusers, she said, the cameras wouldn’t be effective. “I mean, the whole purpose is to stop this. There’s no teeth [without an injunction].” 

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence

Even with video, no smoking gun

Domestic violence advocates say they’re not surprised that women facing abuse would hesitate to conform to the rules set out by the Cape Coral police. Almost half of domestic violence incidents go unreported, and filing an injunction can complicate the situations that survivors find themselves in. Survivors might not be ready (or able) to leave an abuser they still love, share children with, or rely on for financial support—or they might fear the consequences of legal escalation.

“There are a large number of survivors for whom calling the police could feel inherently risky,” says Brignone, the UC Berkeley researcher. “Do I want to call the police if he’s just going to get out in 24 hours and kill me?” 

Ring maintained a specific Facebook advertising budget to promote law enforcement “Wanted” videos. On at least one occasion, Ring produced a video for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s deputy indicated that he would be interested in this service in the future.

Survivors of domestic violence have additional reasons to fear calling the police, Brignone says. In states with mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence, police who respond to a call will sometimes end up arresting both the alleged perpetrator and the survivor. Moreover, survivors can be subjected to retaliatory arrests if an abuser calls the police to make a false complaint. 

These problems disproportionately affect women of color and women with lower incomes. African-American women face a higher rate of domestic violence than all other ethnic groups, except Native American women, but a 2005 study found that they are less likely to seek help because of fears of discrimination and police brutality targeting themselves, their abuser, or both. 

Some advocates say that selective use of video footage can also be turned against domestic violence survivors themselves. 

“Victims of violence frequently present in ways that don’t conform to the stereotypes,” says Leigh Goodmark, a law professor who teaches the gender violence clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in Baltimore. Police might expect to see “somebody who is meek and weak and passive” on a video but instead find a woman who comes across as angry at her abuser. Or a video could simply show low-key interactions between a couple, providing apparent evidence, Goodmark says, that “‘you’re not scared of this person, so you don’t need the protection.’”

Erica Olsen, the director of the Safety Net project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says video footage has another flaw: it’s rarely the “smoking gun” that one might expect. “We’ve seen some of these scenarios play out, where, even in the existence of video footage, there is a question about what happened,” she says. If “there’s no audio, [or] video started or stopped at a certain point, everything is questioned. If there is too much video and there is something in there that questions the character of the person, [that] should be irrelevant.”

The police require survivors to cooperate with efforts to arrest and prosecute abusers and, in some cases, agree to hand over camera footage to police. But requiring police intervention may be coercive, dangerous, and not the most effective way to stop domestic violence, according to domestic violence survivors and advocates.

Domestic violence programs that rely on surveillance fall short in other ways, too. These cases are complex, and violations of a protective order don’t always occur at home. Smith and her ex lived in the same small community, and they had known each other since high school. They could run into each other unintentionally. At times her ex-partner came to her home when other people were present—after all, they shared a daughter. It was apparently during one of those visits that her ex secretly obtained and copied her house key. 

Smith says she’s glad that she had the camera watching her front door and that it caught his lie about how he had entered her home in May. She says the camera was like a “security blanket,” and she would recommend it to other survivors. However, she didn’t agree with the requirement that participants could only receive a camera with an injunction. 

It had taken years before she was ready to see her abuser charged and prosecuted, despite years of physical and emotional abuse during their on-and-off relationship, which she described as toxic. At first, Smith says, “I didn’t want to . . . prosecute him because that is my daughter’s father. But at the same time, I couldn’t keep letting him do that.”

Police work, or Ring marketing campaign?

Neither the Cape Coral nor the San Antonio Police Department has released figures on how many prosecutions have resulted from the presence of the cameras at survivors’ homes. In fact, according to Aaron Gamez, the San Antonio Police Department doesn’t currently track any metrics for the program’s success. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office says “The program has been met favorably by the community, and our services are in demand,” but has not provided any details on how the office is evaluating it. 

However, we do have some details from Cape Coral. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the Cape Coral Police Department planned to complete quarterly reports and an annual review before deciding whether the department would renew the Ring program. The department said it would conduct monthly physical checks on each device; remove cameras that were not installed, or were damaged or not in use; and confiscate any devices given to people who didn’t have active injunctions. When contacted in September 2020, Seymour said that she had not completed the evaluations but that the program was continuing. Since then, despite numerous requests, the department has not provided information on how the program has progressed.

In an email to police officials, Ring’s vice president of business development, Steve Sebestyen, asked for monthly check-ins and a meeting at the 10-month mark to decide whether to continue the program. The same emails specified that if the program ended, participants would start receiving marketing notices urging them to purchase a Ring subscription 30 days before the end of the 12-month pilot program—at the 30-day, 10-day, seven-day, and two-day marks. Neither Newlan nor Ring officials provided additional information on the planned meetings or marketing messages. 

Outside of the domestic violence programs, emails show close coordination between at least one of these law enforcement agencies and Ring marketers. In January 2019, after a neighborhood on the outskirts of San Antonio was hit by a series of car burglaries, deputies at the Bexar County sheriff’s office found several videos of the burglaries on the Neighbors app. They wanted to use the videos to create a “Wanted” video poster for social media, but the homeowner who had posted the videos then deleted them—so the deputies reached out to Ring for advice. 

In an email to deputies, Sami Tahari, a Ring account manager at the time, recommended that the sheriff’s office put out a public request for footage from other area Ring owners. One homeowner responded by sending in a bunch of videos. Tahari then offered to create a video seeking help identifying the suspect in the video, which Ring would pay to promote on Facebook. “We spend hundreds of dollars on...paid FB advertisement[s] so that your video or image is seen by thousands of people in the community,” he wrote. 

Tahari also reminded his contacts: “When you download a video or picture from Neighbors and share it… on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Nextdoor, please don’t forget to encourage the public to download Neighbors. The more people on the app the more valuable the platform becomes for your agency AND Ring will donate a camera to the Bexar County community for every 20 downloads.” 

Ring then produced the video asking for help from local residents to identify the suspect, with prominent “Neighbors app by Ring” branding. When Johnny Garcia, the sheriff’s office’s public information officer, saw it, he emailed back: “It’s amazing!!!!!! Boom!!!!!! Awesome!!!!!! Will share ASAP!!!” 

Critics have also raised concerns about privacy and digital security in relation to these programs. In December 2020, 30 plaintiffs joined a class action lawsuit against Ring for what the suit alleged are poor security practices.

That kind of promotional deal makes it “hard to know where the Ring marketing department ends and police departments begin,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group. “For a long time, their talking points have been identical.” 

Memorandums of understanding between Ring and law enforcement agencies give Ring the right to review any press release the police use to announce partnerships with Ring. The same promotional language has been used by police departments across the country, including in Cape Coral.

Bexar County representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the exchange between Tahari and local officials. Emma Daniels, a Ring spokesperson, says the correspondence “does not reflect our current practice.” And, she says, Ring stopped donating devices to law enforcement agencies in January 2020.

“The more people on the app the more valuable the platform becomes for your agency AND Ring will donate a camera to the Bexar County community for every 20 downloads.”

Email to Bexar County Sheriffs from Ring account manager Sami Tahari

By that time, the donation program had probably accomplished its goals, says Chris Gilliard, a visiting research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, who studies surveillance technologies. The broad cooperation with police departments is “a significant part of how Ring got such a foothold in neighborhoods across the country.” 

Ring may no longer hand out free cameras, but it continues to work closely with police departments. And the company has been developing new ways to extend its reach, beyond just expanding its product line and pursuing partnerships with public safety agencies. Ring recently partnered with Lennar, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, to install its new Connected by Ring smart home products in all of Lennar’s new home builds. For some homebuyers, this might be just another bonus feature—as unremarkable as porch lights, sprinklers, or fancy appliances. However, Guariglia at the EFF sees a straight line between the Lennar partnership and the way Ring seeded police departments with free cameras. “If Ring and connected smart home products are more ubiquitous,” he says, it’s “a kind of built-in, permanent advertisement for buying more Amazon devices that can interface with your home and its built-in technology.”

Privacy and consent, but for whom?

Under the pilot programs in Texas and Florida, survivors are meant to share footage of incidents directly with police. But outside of those programs, some videos of domestic violence have found their way into wider venues: the Neighbors app, the internet, and the evening news.

These pilot programs are expanding, even though police departments have yet to release figures on how successful they are. Florida is the first known instance of a statewide effort to expand the use of Ring cameras using money from the federal government.

In June 2019, one disturbing scene unfolded in Manor, Texas, more than 100 miles east of Bexar County. In the grainy black-and-white video, later shared to social media and picked up by local TV news stations, a woman approaches and knocks frantically on a home’s front door. She looks over her shoulder several times. Her knocking becomes more urgent. A man approaches swiftly while she pleads, “Stop! Please, no!”

“Get over here!” the man says. “Get into the car!” He pulls her out of the camera’s frame. 

A similar video was captured in Arcadia, California, in September 2019. Dressed in what looks like pajamas, a woman runs into the frame of another doorbell camera. She, too, is looking over her shoulder as she knocks, but her perpetrator catches up quickly. As she screams “No!” and tries to resist, the man drags her by her hair onto the front lawn. The view is obstructed, but he appears to hit her repeatedly and stomp on her. Finally, he says, “Get up or I’ll kill you.” 

These videos reveal traumatic moments, and experts say the individuals captured on camera have no control over what happens to the images. In both cases, the camera belongs to a stranger, and so does the video. The homeowner is the one who agrees to Amazon’s terms of service and chooses how to share the video—whether it’s uploaded to the Neighbors app, given to the police, or handed over to the media.

The person in the footage “has no relationship with the company… and never agreed to their likeness being cut up, made into a product,” says Angel Díaz, counsel with the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Critics such as Díaz contend that such videos essentially become free marketing material for Ring, which trades on fear and voyeurism.

The company counters that videos like these, upsetting as they are, can help protect the public. “Ring built Neighbors to empower people to share important safety information with each other and connect with the public safety agencies that serve them,” Daniels, the Ring spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement. 

And, Ring says, it takes steps to protect the privacy of people who appear in such videos. “When it comes to sharing customer videos with media or to our owned channels, our current policy is that we either obtain a release or blur the face of every identifiable person in the video before we share.”

When violent incidents like these are caught on camera and shared, on the surface it may appear that the system of video surveillance and of neighbors looking out for each other is working as it should. Video evidence can certainly aid police and prosecutors. But advocates for domestic violence victims say that when these intimate moments are made public, the people involved are victimized again, by losing their power to make their own decisions. The women in such videos may have wanted and needed help, advocates say—but not necessarily from the police. 

In Manor, Texas, for example, police charged the man in the video with third-degree felony kidnapping. But the woman in the video later told local reporters that she was looking for an attorney to try getting the charges dropped. 

“They’re selling fear in exchange for people giving up their privacy.”

Angel Díaz, Brennan Center for Justice

“The aim is not about [getting] the survivor to prosecute or convincing them to participate in the criminal justice prosecution,” says Tuller, the former director of the women’s shelter in New York City. “The goal is to get them to safety and to get them to share the resources and support that they need.”

In addition, some critics of Ring cameras say that viral Ring videos distort the way the public thinks about the prevalence of violent crime, and how useful surveillance cameras can be in combating it. 

“They’re selling fear in exchange for people giving up their privacy,” says Díaz at the Brennan Center. But the problem with this narrative, he added, is that it has typically not been “a lack of proof” but rather a lack of “interest on the part of the police departments to investigate” certain crimes that affect marginalized people—whether, he added, these were in communities of color or women affected by domestic violence. 

The costs of doing business

Experts in digital privacy and security have their own concerns about Ring cameras.

For one thing, Ring devices have been subject to hacking. In June 2019, the cybersecurity company Bitdefender discovered a vulnerability that could have allowed someone physically near a Ring device to intercept log-ins and potentially attack the household network, a problem that the company then fixed. Then, in December 2019, security researcher Nick Shepherd found that more than 3,500 Ring customer log-in credentials had been compromised. And in one incident in Cape Coral just a month before Smith received her camera, a Black family was subjected to racist abuse after somebody hacked into and spoke to them through the speaker in their Ring camera. 

Ring denies that the leaks came from company databases and cautioned users against reusing passwords. But there has also been unauthorized access to Ring cameras from within the company. In January 2020, in a written response to a query from the US Senate, Amazon’s vice president of public policy revealed that four employees had been terminated over the previous four years for improperly accessing customer videos. And in December 2020, 30 plaintiffs joined a class-action lawsuit against Ring, alleging that the company had poor security practices and complaining that Ring had tried to shift the blame to consumers for choosing poor passwords. In July, Ring introduced end-to-end encryption on 13 of its devices, improving security and ensuring that Amazon employees can’t view or share videos unless they are posted to the Neighbors app by the Ring account holder. However, end-to-end encryption is not yet available on Ring’s lower-end battery-powered cameras, which are among the devices in use in San Antonio. 

Advocates say that digital privacy and security carry particularly high stakes for the survivors of abuse. “Cameras around neighborhoods are a real concern to domestic violence agencies,” says Olsen at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “They don’t want survivors walking from a store to a shelter and being captured on camera.” This means that beyond simply feeling like “an invasion of privacy, mass use of surveillance cameras can feel dangerous and unsafe.” 

Privacy experts including Díaz, the lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, have a broader concern, as well. 

Law enforcement agencies frequently ask technology companies, including Ring, as well as Apple, Facebook, Google, and others, to share data on consumers. When the companies do share information, consumers rarely hear about it or have an opportunity to object. This means that the main bulwarks against overly broad requests for data on individuals are technology companies themselves. In a transparency report released in January 2021, Ring said it received more than 1,900 requests for information from law enforcement agencies the previous year, fully or partially fulfilling at least 1,090 of them. 

The requests Ring complied with could have been in the public interest, but it’s unclear: Tech companies have a lot of leeway in how they respond when the police come knocking—and how much information they share in their transparency reports. Díaz worries that Ring might “just decide it’s not worth it to invest the legal resources and costs to challenge overbroad requests.” He adds, “That sort of business analysis of ‘how much something is going to cost’ combined with ‘we want to have a nice relationship with this police department’ just creates a very negative incentive” for privacy protections.

Ring refutes the idea that the company’s relationship with police departments creates a conflict of interest on privacy issues. “Ring builds products for our customers and communities, not law enforcement,” the company said in a written statement. “We are committed to being transparent with our customers about our practices and policies, and we design all of our products, community programs, and services to keep customers in control of what information they want to share and with who, and that includes law enforcement.” 

But critics say the Neighbors portal for public safety agencies is one example of a product built expressly for police. “They could just as easily have built a network security camera company and never involved the police at all,” says Guariglia, the EFF policy expert. “If police want that footage, they can bring warrants to the owner of the camera. They did not have to build them an interface by which they could request footage easily.”

Beyond unintended consequences

Among advocates for survivors of domestic violence, even some of Ring’s skeptics say that the idea of using surveillance cameras for survivors is not inherently bad. Instead, they say that such programs require a more honest accounting of the risks to participants, along with more safeguards and greater involvement from both advocates and survivors.

“Having [a security camera] as an option is not the problem,” says Olsen at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “The problem really does come from the fine print. It’s about making sure survivors are informed about the most beneficial use and any potential harms.” 

And there does seem to be some movement toward more informed consent: In April 2021, the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council in Texas—the county is home to more than 4 million people and the city of Houston, and is some 200 miles from Bexar County—announced that Ring had donated 500 devices to give to domestic violence survivors. In an emailed statement, Ring said it was “proud to support” the effort. 

The cameras are being distributed through support organizations that provide direct services to survivors, and council representatives say survivors won’t need to have injunctions against their alleged abusers to acquire a camera. “We wanted to make it as low-barrier as possible, and victim-defined,” says Barbie Brashear, the council’s executive director. “There are many people who never engage in a law enforcement or a criminal justice or court kind of intervention, but they still have some high safety needs.” 

Some domestic violence experts say that the Harris County model is an improvement over the police-run programs “because there’s no element of coercion,” says Brignone, the UC Berkeley researcher. But other survivors’ advocates say that more safeguards should be put in place. 

For instance, they’d like to see programs offering cameras only after extensive safety planning with the survivor to make sure it can actually benefit them, in light of their individual circumstances. (Harris County has taken this step.) Then, before survivors decide to use a particular surveillance camera, Olsen recommends that they and their counselors pay extra attention to the company’s privacy practices. (Smith, in Cape Coral, says that when Christine Seymour, the victim services advocate, gave her the camera, “I don’t believe that she mentioned any risks.”) 

Other experts are more cautious still, saying it may be too soon to implement programs like the Ring partnerships, even with additional safeguards. People eager to help rarely put enough effort into exploring all the potential harms, says the University of Maryland’s Goodmark. “I think the problem that we frequently have in the anti-[domestic] violence movement is that things happen, and we go, ‘Oh, that was an unintended consequence,’” Goodmark says, “because we have failed to think about what consequences could be at the front end.”

This article was co-published by MIT Technology Review and Consumer Reports, and produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Eileen Guo is an Ida B. Wells Fellow. Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with any advertiser on this site.

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