Welcome to the great surveillance society: more people are installing Ring cameras as an affordable and easy way to improve the security of not just their household, but, through use of the associated Neighbors app which lets users share their footage with local police, their entire neighborhood. But while the consumer's benefits are seemingly clear, there may be hidden consequences as well: Gizmodo was able to acquire and uncover precise coordinate data from 65,800 Neighbors posts detailing where reporting households were located.
Neighbors, which debuted in May of last year, does not require a Ring camera for users to participate in the social network nor does it require users to share their specific location or footage should law enforcement put out an information request to a certain area. Police aren't told of which Ring owners receive their requests, the Amazon-owned company says. It also said that it uses AES and TLS encoding to move data from users' cameras to their devices and apps.
Regardless of that, however, Gizmodo was able to generate a map showcasing a network of an estimated 20,000 Ring cameras in select portions of 15 U.S. cities whose owners have opted to share footage on the Neighbors app in the previous 500 days. Listed coordinates, which go down to six decimal places, varied in accuracy to the actual address the camera was based, but they never were more than 260 feet away. Reporters who traveled to those areas were then able to derive context clues from the associated footage to pinpoint camera locations. In Washington D.C., a short stretch of road between a charter school for 6th to 12th graders and a soccer field is dotted with "no fewer than" 13 Ring cameras.
Gizmodo, which did not publish how it acquired Neighbors posts, claims that anyone can retrieve reports from anywhere across the country "in near-real-time" and sort through them by keywords.
While Ring has argued that the data it is able to access would've already been public and protected by the First Amendment anyways, the context of what its products are used for (enforcing local security), how its owners may go to different extremes in using it (targeting people by skin color or if they go into an abortion clinic), and the immediacy of the reporting has raised a plethora of concerns from civil rights advocates about the persistent surveillance capabilities that Amazon, the government, and even a person with a grudge may have.
The consequences of misinterpreting what's going on in a 10-second clip have also never been greater.
A Ring spokesperson contacted us after we published our story to issue a statement which we've published in full:
The Neighbors app is built on users receiving alerts about important safety incidents near them to stay informed about what’s happening in their communities. We’re committed to delivering this important service to the community while putting our users’ privacy and security first.
Posts to the Neighbors app do not reveal the exact addresses of users or Ring devices owners. When choosing to post to the app, users include the incident location, which is not always the same location as their address. These public posts are then displayed as happening at a nearby intersection close to the vicinity of the incident to protect user privacy.
Ring is always open to dialogue about ways we can iterate and improve upon our products, but it is also important to ensure that the Neighbors app and the way its features work are properly represented. We will continue to educate the greater public on how the Neighbors app actually works and the positive impact its users are having on communities around the country.