Amazon Ring draws scrutiny over ‘watch list’ reports

By Caroline Bottger

Amazon is reportedly planning to use facial recognition within its Ring doorbells to create ‘watch lists’ for neighborhoods, according to internal documents reviewed by The Intercept. The plan is to notify Ring users when the image of someone deemed ‘suspicious’ is captured by their camera-enabled, internet-connected doorbell. It is still unclear how these watch lists would be compiled, or how ‘suspicious’ activity would be defined. Amazon spokespeople have denied that the plan is or was in the works and that it does not use facial recognition in its Ring doorbells.

Despite Ring’s insistence that it does not employ facial recognition, it has been working with a Kyiv-based research and development team on “semi-automated crime prevention and monitoring systems which are based on, but not limited to, face recognition,” said Ring Ukraine’s website. (The website has been removed but the page is still available via the Wayback Machine.) It also has a “head of face recognition research.” Furthermore, some police departments have discussed using their own facial recognition technology to analyze the footage recorded by Ring.

Calls to investigate Amazon have grown louder in the last month. In response to what it calls Amazon’s “surveillance empire,” a coalition of nearly 40 nonprofits and advocacy groups created the website to put grassroots pressure on lawmakers to probe further. Through the site, members of the public can send messages to their representatives asking them to investigate the company and bring Amazon executives to Congress to testify. The campaign specifically mentions Rekognition, Amazon’s machine learning technology that has facial recognition capabilities, and its Ring doorbells. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and four other senators wrote a letter to Amazon seeking clarification on the data security policies of Ring in particular.

Sen. Markey himself had already reached out to Amazon in September to raise concerns about the nature of the company’s partnerships with law enforcement. Ring currently has official contracts with 600 police departments across the United States, and encourages law enforcement to tap into Ring’s Neighbors app to view the footage recorded by the doorbells. Massachusetts as a state has been wary of facial recognition: the town of Somerville became the second city in the U.S. to ban the practice in June 2019. (Brookline, a town immediately south of Boston, was considering a ban in August 2019.) Amazon told Markey that facial recognition was a “contemplated, but not released” feature, but would consider adding it if users asked for it. It also pointed out that facial recognition is increasingly common in cameras made by competitors, such as Google’s Nest smart home products.

This is not the only front where Amazon is currently facing pushback. In early November, the ACLU announced that it would be filing a lawsuit against the US Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency. At the heart of the lawsuit is the agencies’ use of Rekognition and Microsoft Azure, whose Face API has facial recognition capabilities. The latter recently won a $10 billion contract with the Department of Defense to provide infrastructure for the Pentagon’s business and mission operations.

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