Citizen-on-Citizen Surveillance: All the Data that Amazon’s Ring Cameras Collect on You
If you walk through your local neighborhood—providing you live in a reasonably large town or city—you’ll be caught on camera. Government CCTV cameras may record your stroll, but it is increasingly likely that you’ll also be captured by one of your neighbors’ security cameras or doorbells. It’s even more likely that the camera will be made by Ring, the doorbell and security camera firm owned by Amazon.
Since Amazon splashed out more than a billion dollars for the company in 2018, Ring’s security products have exploded in popularity. Ring has simultaneously drawn controversy for making deals (and sharing data) with thousands of police departments, helping expand and normalize suburban surveillance, and falling to a string of hacks. While the cameras can provide homeowners with reassurance that their property is secure, critics say the systems also run the risk of reinforcing racism and racial profiling and eroding people’s privacy.
Videos shared from security cameras and internet-connected doorbells have also become common on platforms like Facebook and TikTok, raking in millions of views. “Ring impacts everybody’s privacy,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Most immediately, it impacts the people who walk down the streets every day, where the cameras are pointing out.”
While Ring is far from the only maker of smart doorbells and cameras—Google’s Nest line is another popular option—its connections to law enforcement have drawn the most criticism, as when it recently handed over data without warrants. So, what exactly does Ring collect and know about you?
Ring gets your name, phone number, email and postal address, and any other information you provide to it—such as payment information or your social media handles if you link your Ring account to Facebook, for instance. The company also gets information about your Wi-Fi network and its signal strength, and it knows you named your camera “Secret CIA Watchpoint,” as well as all the other technical changes you make to your cameras or doorbells.
In March 2020, a BBC information request revealed that Ring keeps detailed records of people’s doorbell activity. Every doorbell press was logged. Each motion the camera detected was stored. And details were saved every time someone zoomed in on footage on their phone. In just 129 days, 4906 actions were recorded. (Ring says it does not sell people’s data.)
Jolynn Dellinger, a senior lecturing fellow focusing on privacy and ethics at Duke University’s school of law, says recording audio when someone is on the street is a “serious problem” for privacy and may change how people behave. “We operate with a sense of obscurity, even in public,” Dellinger says. “We are in danger of increasing surveillance of everyday life in a way that is not consistent with either our expected views or really what’s best for society.” In October 2021, a British woman won a court case that said her neighbor’s Ring cameras, which overlooked her house and garden, broke data laws.
Ring can also keep videos shared to its Neighbors’ app—an app where people and law enforcement agencies can share alerts about “crimes” and post their videos of what is happening around the homes. (There are rules about what people are allowed to post.)
While Ring’s privacy policies apply to those who purchase its devices, people who are captured in footage or audio don’t have a chance to agree to them. “Privacy, security, and customer control are foundational to Ring, and we take the protection of our customers’ personal and account information seriously,” Rall says.
Ultimately, you agree to give Ring permission to control the “content” you share—including audio and video—while you own the intellectual property to it. The company’s terms of service say you give it an “unlimited, irrevocable, fee free and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right” to store, use, copy, or modify content you share through Neighbors or elsewhere online. (Audio recording can be turned off in Ring’s settings.)