Senators Raise Privacy Fears With Amazon Over Ukraine Team Allegedly Having Unrestrained Access to Ring Security Cameras

A handful of U.S. senators are demanding detailed information from Amazon about the national security implications of its home surveillance subsidiary Ring.

In a letter addressed to billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos, dated November 20, the political collective voiced fresh concerns about the data security and privacy protections built into the range of home security systems and the portal that lets police access users' video recordings.

The group referenced recent security blunders by the company and said Americans need to know who has access to Ring content, The Intercept reported.

"Ring devices routinely upload data, including video recordings, to Amazon's servers," the senators wrote. "Amazon therefore holds a vast amount of deeply sensitive data and footage detailing the lives of millions of Americans in and near their homes."

"If hackers or foreign actors were to gain access to this data, it would not only threaten the privacy and safety of the impacted Americans; it could also threaten U.S. national security," the senators' letter continued.

The detailed list of questions urges Amazon to respond by January 6 next year. It was signed by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware alongside Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan.

The group warned that personal data of Ring users could potentially "be exploited by foreign intelligence services to amplify the impact of espionage and influence operations."

They made reference to recent research from cybersecurity firm Bitdefender, which found an issue in the Ring Video Doorbell Pro, since resolved, that could let hackers steal the owner's Wi-Fi credentials and "possibly mount a larger attack against the household network."

And they raised concerns about an alleged data sharing agreement in 2016 that gave "virtually unfettered access" to a research and development team based in Ukraine that included video content from every Ring camera in the world, as reported by The Intercept this year.

According to The Intercept, the files shared with the Ukraine team were not encrypted. In addition, a source told the website that Ring had given "highly privileged access" to executives in the U.S. that provided "round-the-clock live feeds" from some cameras, a claim denied by Ring.

At the time, a Ring spokesperson told The Intercept the firm has "strict policies in place for all our team members and holds team staff to a high ethical standard. The alleged security issues with the Ukraine-based "satellite office" was first reported by The Information.

The senators said the reports raised "serious questions about Ring's internal cybersecurity and privacy safeguards," particularly if the systems expose U.S. data to foreign countries.

"Americans who make the choice to install Ring products in and outside their homes do so under the assumption that they are as your website proclaims 'making the neighborhood safer,'" the letter continues. "As such, the American people have a right to know who else is looking at the data they provide to Ring, and if that data is secure from hackers."

The letter asks for details about what security measures are in place, if encryption is used in data transfers and how regularly the company performs security audits. In relation to Ukraine, the senators are asking for information about how many employees of Amazon and Ring have access to Americans' data and if any employees have access to live user feeds?

In recent months, Sen. Markey has been spearheading efforts to glean more information from Ring about its partnerships with 600-plus law enforcement agencies in America. Officers can use the portal to request videos taken on Ring cameras if it relates to an investigation.

In a September letter, the politician said the Ring network "could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties." For its part, Amazon has largely stuck with its marketing tagline, saying the mission of the service has always been to make neighborhoods safer and help citizens to share crime data.

But spying and data privacy concerns have long been raised by top civil liberty and human rights groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU.

"We hope that with the increased attention politicians are giving to Amazon's Ring, legislation to reign in and oversee ubiquitous surveillance and police partnerships will not be far behind," the EFF wrote in a blog post about the latest efforts by the five Democratic senators.

Amazon did not immediately respond to request for comment. The company announced it was purchasing Ring in February last year for a reported $1 billion, CNBC reported.

On Tuesday this week, Sen. Markey released some results of his ongoing investigation, saying that Ring "has no security requirements for law enforcement offices that get access to users' footage" and warning the firm "refuses to commit to not selling users' biometric data."

"Ring does not require law enforcement to delete materials shared through a video request after a certain period of time," Ring VP of Public Policy Brian Huseman conceded.

But Sen. Markey asserted earlier this week: "Amazon's Ring is marketed to help keep families safe, but privacy rights are in real danger as a result of company policies. Amazon is not doing enough to ensure that its products and practices do not run afoul of our civil liberties."

Ring camera
A "Ring Stick Up Cam" is pictured at the Amazon Headquarters, on September 20, 2018 in Seattle Washington. Stephen Brashear/Getty