Ring doorbell cameras, which are run by Amazon, gave police their footage 11 times this year without the consent of the device's owners, the company told a senator under questioning.
The online retail giant, which also manufactures its own products, has previously said that the files are only handed over to American law enforcement officials if it's demanded by a court order, or if the owner specifically gives their permission—unless the situation is an "emergency."
When the company was questioned by Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat representing Massachusetts, Amazon revealed that police have been given Ring customers' footage without their say-so, and without a judge's order in place, 11 times so far in 2022, just over halfway through the year. The firm said those instances were "emergency" situations, which it defined as "cases involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person."
In a statement posted online on Wednesday, Markey claimed that the increasing level of "law enforcement reliance on private surveillance creates a crisis of accountability."
Markey's questions were put to Amazon in a letter he sent to the firm on June 14, as part of his long-running investigation into the links between the company and U.S. police forces. He wrote: "Since Ring has well over 10 million device users, it appears likely that Ring products record millions of Americans' activity without their knowledge every day. This surveillance system threatens the public in ways that go far beyond abstract privacy invasion: individuals may use Ring devices' audio recordings to facilitate blackmail, stalking, and other damaging practices.
"As Ring products capture significant amounts of audio on private and public property adjacent to dwellings with Ring doorbells—including recordings of conversations that people reasonably expect to be private—the public's right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk. This sweeping data collection and invasive surveillance is particularly concerning in light of Ring's ongoing engagement with law enforcement."
The reply, from Amazon's vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, was dated July 1 with the findings officially unveiled by Markey on Wednesday.
Discussing how the company determines which police requests for footage are "emergency" cases that do not require owners' permission or legal orders, Huseman reportedly wrote: "Ring makes a good-faith determination whether the request meets the well-known standard." He said that had happened 11 times this year. Amazon's letter also reportedly declined to agree to a series of policy points the senator put forward, including: "Never accept financial contributions from policing agencies."
A Ring spokesperson told Newsweek: "It's simply untrue that Ring gives anyone unfettered access to customer data or video, as we have repeatedly made clear to our customers and others. The law authorizes companies like Ring to provide information to government entities if the company believes that an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person, such as a kidnapping or an attempted murder, requires disclosure without delay. Ring faithfully applies that legal standard."
Newsweek has reached out to Markey.
In May 2021, it emerged that 1 in 10 police forces across the U.S. had signed up to access videos from the Ring cameras of millions of consumers.
But despite the concerns of some, including Markey, others have praised the development as a useful crime-fighting tool which can help the police and make Americans safer.
On Tuesday, Omaha Police Department reportedly revealed it had used Ring doorbell videos in "hundreds" of investigations since 2019. There is no indication that any of those videos were used without the consent of the owners. Captain Steve Cerveny told KETV: "[In] numerous property crimes, we have utilized the Ring portal and video received from it... you're talking about anything from a destruction of property to auto theft or burglary. It's routinely used in those investigations and has proved useful recently in identifying suspects. We also use it for violent crimes. It has helped in a homicide investigation."
But the home security cameras mean that it's not just police who can do the policing.
A 16-year-old girl was supported online when she claimed her neighbors had sent screengrabs of her, taken from their doorbell cameras, to her mother with the suggestion she shouldn't have been outside when it was late. She said their actions were "creepy" as she felt spied upon.
While another woman claimed her doorbell camera helped her catch her cheating husband.
However, the doorbell cameras most frequently hit the news when they capture something unexpected or comical. One woman solved the mystery of who had been ringing her doorbell in the middle of the night when her camera revealed it was a cockroach climbing over the bell sensor.
Update 7/14/22 4:15 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include additional comments by a Ring spokesperson.