Smart doorbell maker Ring has built its business by turning neighborhoods into surveillance networks. Now the company is drawing fire for using private data without informing customers and sharing data with police.

What’s new: A three-part exposé in Vice is the latest in a series of media reports charging that Ring, an Amazon subsidiary, mishandles private data in its efforts to promote AI-powered “smart policing.”

How it works: Ring’s flagship products are doorbells with integrated camera, microphone, and speaker. The camera’s face and object recognition software alerts users, via a smartphone or connected-home device, whenever someone or something enters its field of view. Users can talk with people at the door remotely through the microphone and speaker.

  • Ring has found success promoting its devices as crime-prevention tools. It bolsters this reputation by advertising its partnerships with more than 600 U.S. police departments and 90 city governments. In return for the implicit endorsement, Ring provides police departments with free devices and access to user data.
  • The company exports user data to its R&D office in Kiev, Ukraine, to train its models. A December 2018 report by The Information documented a lax security culture in Kiev, where employees routinely shared customer video, audio, and personal data. Ring says it uses only videos that users have shared publicly (generally with neighbors and/or police) through an app, and that it has a zero-tolerance policy for privacy violations.
  • Google Nest, Arlo, Wyze, and ADP also offer smart doorbells. Ring, however, is the only one sharing data with police departments.

Behind the news: When it was founded in 2012, Ring was called DoorBot and marketed its system as a hassle-free way to see who’s at the door. The following year, founder Jamie Siminoff appeared on the TV game show Shark Tank. While he didn’t sway the show’s celebrity investors, he raised several million dollars soon after, and changed the name to Ring. In recent years, he has pivoted from promoting the doorbell as a way to enhance social life to positioning it as a crime-prevention tool. In 2018, Amazon purchased Ring for $839 million and now markets the product as part of its Alexa smart-home services.

Pushback: Troubled by the privacy implications of sharing customer data with police, 36 civil rights groups published an open letter calling for a moratorium on partnerships between Ring and public agencies. The letter also asked Congress to investigate the company.

We’re thinking:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Stopwatch.

Stopwatch who?

Stopwatching me and respect my privacy!

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