Cops are handing out hackable doorbells to local homeowners like so much razorbladed Halloween candy. Only it’s not razor blades. It’s surveillance. Amazon’s Ring doorbells are the new party favors, available to citizens at a steep discount. Sometimes, they can actually get them for free from local PDs. And why not? It’s not like the cops spent their money. It seems only fair for citizens to take home some of what they’ve purchased.
The promise is a bit more security, in the form of a doorbell that watches your doorstep and the yard/driveway/street beyond. The implicit suggestion is that you repay this deep discount by allowing cops to access camera footage at will. Even if you demur, you’ll be added to local law enforcement’s Ring map, showing all the houses cops can approach to ask for camera footage.
The doorbells are also tied to an app, Neighbors — one that Amazon markets with footage of doorstep thefts. Amazon likes this angle so much it’s hiring staff to produce news coverage of criminal activities with a hyperlocal focus.
Cops like Ring. And Amazon/Ring likes cops. More tax dollars have headed Amazon’s way in recent months, but documents obtained by Vice show this particular partnership — which also roped in the US Postal Service — failed to pay off for the citizens funding it. Caroline Haskins reports that a Christmas sting operation in Colorado utilized a lot of tech and government personnel, but failed to round up even the usual suspects.
New documents obtained by Motherboard using a Freedom of Information request show how Amazon, Ring, a GPS tracking company, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service collaborated on a package sting operation with the Aurora, Colorado Police Department in December. The operation involved equipping fake Amazon packages with GPS trackers, and surveilling doorsteps with Ring doorbell cameras in an effort to catch someone stealing a package on tape.
The documents show the design and implementation of a highly elaborate public relations stunt, which was designed both to endear Amazon and Ring with local law enforcement, and to make local residents fear the place they live. The parties were disappointed when the operation didn’t result in any arrests.
Vice/Motherboard has posted the documents online so the public can retrace the fail trail. The sting operation involved two government agencies, two companies, 25 Amazon boxes, 15 Ring doorbell cameras, 15 GPS tracking devices, and seven Colorado zip codes. The most notable number, however, is the arrest total: zero.
During this driest of runs, the PR coordinator for Ring’s snitch app (Neighbors), offered her sincere condolences to everyone involved:
“Unfortunate that none were apprehended this time around…”
Yeah, it sucks no one was out stealing packages from doorsteps. It would have made for a great demo reel when pitching Aurora residences doorbell cameras and their chance to participate in spying on their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.
The documents also show Amazon coordinating most of the operation, starting with a training session provided by the maker of the GPS devices, all the way through to its final cut approval on Aurora PD press releases about the sting. They also show the police department asked citizens to be a part of the Ring-enabled surveillance network expansion project, doing business under the delightful name of “Operation Grinch Grab.”
When reached by Motherboard for comment, officer Wells-Longshore said that the Aurora Police Department does not have access to a Ring law enforcement neighborhood portal, but they asked residents for Ring doorbell footage access, and offered to give some residents free Ring cameras.
Sure, you can take a free camera and refuse to grant law enforcement access to footage, but what kind of a citizen would do that? Probably the kind that won’t pick up litter and put it in the trash when asked to by a uniformed officer. These free Ring cameras come with an implied access license few people will feel comfortable violating.
This sting operation’s lack of success won’t discourage other law enforcement agencies from partnering with Amazon in the future. Amazon has made it very clear it has zero problems selling surveillance tech to law enforcement, even while under the Congressional microscope. With Ring, it’s expanding law enforcement’s surveillance reach with cheap-to-free cameras that appeal to homeowners’ pocketbooks and peace of mind.
If this all seems a bit too cozy, that’s because it is. And what appears to be little more than an easy way to capture package thieves on tape is actually a convenient way for the government to keep an eye on people’s comings and goings, as well as who they socialize with. For now, it’s all about footage of crimes. But the access point is already there and the camera is always rolling.
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