Emails obtained from the Los Angeles Police Department show that the department sought protest-related footage from Amazon’s Ring home camera systems in the wake of George Floyd’s killing last year, lending credence to years of warnings that pervasive private surveillance networks will enable questionable police practices.
On July 16, 2020, the footage was sought by a detective assigned to an LAPD task force dedicated to investigating “significant crimes committed during the protests and demonstrations,” according to emails obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation via public records request and shared with The Intercept. It’s unclear if the police request, relayed to customers through Amazon’s Ring subsidiary, was directed to a single camera owner or many; contemporaneous emails released by the department show that Ring’s in-house law enforcement liaisons were helping officers use an interface that would allow them to send bulk video requests to specific neighborhoods or broader geographic areas.
“The LAPD ‘Safe L.A. Task Force’ is asking for your help,” reads the message, from detective Gerry Chamberlain. “During recent protests, individuals were injured & property was looted, damaged, and destroyed. In an effort to identify those responsible, we are asking you to submit copies of any video(s) you may have for [redacted].” The request appears to have made no mention of what exactly the LAPD was pursuing; no crime, proven or alleged, is described in the unredacted portion of the request, only that the police wanted footage of an unspecified “incident” related to a protest. The redacted portion of the request does not appear to contain any substantive further description.
The records obtained by the EFF show that LAPD detectives sent video requests to Ring owners on several other occasions coinciding with large street protests in Los Angeles, but the details of those messages were fully redacted, making it impossible to determine what exactly police were after.
In October, the Los Angeles Times cited LAPD data showing that the “vast majority” of the city’s Black Lives Matter rallies, part of a national wave of outraged mobilization following the police killing of Floyd, were peaceful, with only “between 6% and 7%” of protests resulting in any violence, including violence perpetrated by the LAPD itself. It’s unclear what data, if any, was turned over to the task force as a result of the protest related Ring request, but the EFF says that it believes the message is the first evidence of police using Ring’s increasingly ubiquitous camera network to surveil last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“Demonstrators have a First Amendment-protected right to protest, but there is also a long history in this country, from long before the civil rights movement up through the present, of activists facing retribution and reprisals for their political participation,” explained Matthew Guariglia, a historian and surveillance policy analyst with the EFF. “This can be especially troubling, and especially chilling to political expression, when people are protesting the same institutions doing the surveillance, namely the police. Ring requests provide an unregulated avenue through which police could theoretically use a trash can being knocked over as justification for requesting footage of 12 hours of peaceful protesting.”
Neither the LAPD nor Ring would answer questions from The Intercept about the purpose of this request, how the video data was used, or whether LAPD made similar requests. Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri said that the company “expressly prohibits Video Requests for lawful activities, such as protests” and believed that Detective Chamberlain’s request was intended to “identify individuals responsible for theft, property damage, and physical injury.”
“This can be especially troubling, and especially chilling to political expression, when people are protesting the same institutions doing the surveillance, namely the police.”
The task force’s message, sent via the bespoke data portal Ring provides to departments across the country, specified a date and time range for the videos it sought, but that range was redacted by the LAPD. It’s also unclear how wide an array of footage the department was requesting, leaving open the possibility that even if an actual crime had been committed in view of a camera, footage of unrelated people merely exercising their First Amendment rights in public could have also been turned over to the LAPD. Ring’s video-sharing interface provides no way of removing unrelated people from footage before sharing it, and the task force told the Los Angeles Times last year that it had used facial recognition software to identify people believed to have committed crimes during the protests. Policies guiding how long cops can retain privately obtained data like Ring videos — and what they can do once it lands on their hard drives — are rare and typically weak.
Indeed, a key upside of Ring footage for police is that it can be obtained through direct requests to camera owners, bypassing the judicial review needed when trying to compel the sharing of such video. “Once you hand over footage to police for investigating a package theft or car break-in, they can hold onto it or forward it to other agencies without your knowledge or permission,” explained Guariglia.
Ring operates a social app called Neighbors that allows people in the same community to share videos and alerts about purportedly suspicious individuals and alleged criminality. The potential for innocent people to fall within the scope of Ring’s ever-expanding dragnet and the company’s persistent work to help funnel untold volumes of video data to police have been longstanding concerns of privacy advocates and civil libertarians, who say the company is blurring an already tenuous line between public and private surveillance. Ring, which has imbued its work with a law-and-order, pro-police corporate ethos both before and after its acquisition by Amazon in 2018, provides cops with a vast, unprecedented network of thousands and thousands of privately owned unblinking eyes and always-listening ears in cities and towns large and small, all connected to the internet.
Rights groups worry that Ring’s police video-sharing systems pressure private citizens into turning over their data without the oversight of a judge. But since many Ring owners store their video on Amazon’s servers, data is accessible via court order should a customer ignore or deny an officer’s request for cooperation. Though the LAPD request for protest related footage notes that “sharing your video recordings with the Los Angeles Police Department is entirely optional,” that disclaimer is followed by a large button that launches the Ring app, beginning the sharing process. A 2019 report by Motherboard showed that Ring coaches police departments on how best to cajole the company’s customers into voluntarily sharing their surveillance videos. Though Ring emphasizes the technically voluntary nature of its police data sharing scheme, this elides the fact that the people actually captured on camera have consented to nothing. “Yes, data requests are voluntary and footage is shared with the consent of the user,” Guariglia said, “but the footage and audio they are sharing only rarely portray the consenting user.”