Most of the time, product testing is pretty simple. If a router is better and more feature-full than another with a similar price, then you give it a better score and move on with your day. However, we occasionally end up with products that can be dangerous to you, or to society in general, which we believe to be the case with Amazon-owned Ring and its relationship with law enforcement.
When you set up a Ring camera, you are automatically enrolled in the Neighbors service. (You can go into the Ring app's settings and toggle off the Neighbors feed integration and notifications, but the onus is on you.) Neighbors, which is also a stand-alone app, shows you an activity feed from all nearby Ring camera owners, with posts about found dogs, stolen hoses, and a Safety Report that shows how many calls for service—violent or nonviolent—were made in the past week. It also provides an outlet for public safety agencies, like local police and fire departments, to broadcast information widely.
But it also allows Ring owners to send videos they've captured with their Ring video doorbell cameras and outdoor security cameras to law enforcement. This is a feature unique to Ring—even Nextdoor removed its Forward to Police feature in 2020, which allowed Nextdoor users to forward their own safety posts to local law enforcement agencies. If a crime has been committed, law enforcement should obtain a warrant to access civilian video footage.
Multiple members of WIRED's Gear team have spoken to Ring over the years about this feature. The company has been clear it's what customers want, even though there’s no evidence that more video surveillance footage keeps communities safer. Instead, Neighbors increases the possibility of racial profiling. It makes it easier for both private citizens and law enforcement agencies to target certain groups for suspicion of crime based on skin color, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin.
We have been concerned about this issue since Ring started partnering with police departments to hand out free video cameras. Via the Neighbors Public Safety Service (NPSS) within the app, law enforcement can create Requests for Assistance, and Neighbors can contact camera owners directly for footage.
We believe this feature should not exist. When we interviewed Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar on steps the company was taking to reduce racial profiling, Friar cited the work of Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford professor whose work on the psychological associations between race and crime won her a MacArthur Genius grant.
Much of Eberhardt’s work revolves around decision points—the more you make people stop and think before they act, the less likely they are to engage in unconscious racial bias. Putting a frictionless feature directly into Neighbors makes it that much easier for Ring owners to bombard law enforcement with unsubstantiated and possibly biased alarms.
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It's important to note here that law enforcement is legally not allowed to access your personal videos or information without your permission. Law enforcement agencies must cite an active investigation within a time and geographic range, and cannot solicit information on lawful activities like protesting. Ring is not allowed to access your video data either, though that hasn't stopped it before. When the company improperly allowed employees and contractors to survey customers illegally, the Federal Trade Commission slapped the company with a proposed order earlier this year to delete data from videos that employees viewed unlawfully, issue $5.8 million in consumer refunds, and implement a stringent privacy and security program.
Ring has taken steps to address the concerns about its relationship with law enforcement. In 2021, the company released the results of a nearly two-year-long audit with the Policing Project at New York University’s School of Law. Ring made changes to policies, including making Requests for Assistance public, making NPSS a local service, and introducing new community guidelines when it comes to posting. For example, you're now only allowed to report facts, not feelings. You're no longer allowed to post footage of people just because you feel squirmy about them.
If you've logged into Neighbors recently, you might have noticed these effects. When I first tested a Ring camera, Neighbors showed me a weekly crime report of two dozen “police incidents” that had occurred on my street,, which spiked my heart rate and convinced me that we live among criminals in a degenerate society. A recent peek showed me that my Neighbors feed is now 50 percent missing cats and only 50 percent terrified people posting about gunshots or thieves. It's an improvement.
Yes, there’s nothing stopping law enforcement from physically canvassing streets near a suspected crime scene and asking camera owners, Ring or otherwise, for video footage. However, this process has its own friction points, including walking to find relevant homeowners and going through the process of subpoenaing footage. Other security camera makers also provide video footage to law enforcement as well. Google's Nest says it reserves the right to share information with law enforcement through a pretty opaque process. However, Google does not retain a specific app to make the process easier, and we like using Nest cameras otherwise.
That ties into my last point: We also have problems with Ring's hardware. The security cameras have a low frame rate, are slow loading, and have bulky designs; the Ring Car Cam doesn’t prevent break-ins when the car is off. Like other companies, including Wyze and Eufy, the company tends to only address security loopholes when they are discovered by outside parties. If you’re buying a video camera, you need to consider where it’s placed, because no camera is 100 percent safe.
If you're looking for a home security camera, whether it's a video doorbell or an outdoor camera, we would like to remind you that there are many, many alternatives. Ring cameras are cheap and ubiquitous, but contributing to a just society is also a factor in keeping your family safe.
Correction July 9, 2023: We incorrectly spelled Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar's name. We regret the error.