Amazon's doorbell camera company Ring is featuring its customers' home security footage in Facebook advertisements, encouraging people to identify and report suspected criminals to the police. The company is able to do this thanks to a broad terms of service agreement that grants it the perpetual right to use footage shared with it for “any purpose” it chooses.
Earlier this week, Twitter users pointed out that Ring was using images from customer security footage in promoted posts on the social network. These ads included details on suspects and their alleged crimes, and contact information for local police departments. Using Facebook’s ad library tool, BuzzFeed News found more than a half dozen active Ring ads, which the Amazon-owned company calls “Community Alerts,” showing the faces of suspected criminals in many US cities, including Baltimore, Kansas City, and Las Vegas.
A day after those ads began to draw attention on Twitter, they suddenly became inactive and disappeared from Ring’s Facebook ad library. (Facebook policy stipulates that inactive, nonpolitical ads do not need to be archived in its ad library.) Ring told BuzzFeed News that community alerts are only designed to be live for a limited amount of time.
While Ring says it’s using security footage to help solve crimes, customers may not be aware of the many other ways the internet-connected doorbell manufacturer can use their videos — for its own promotion, to sell to others, or to modify as it wishes. Privacy experts caution against giving Ring “irrevocable” and “perpetual” license to its users’ content, noting that future use cases for such security footage could include the training of facial recognition algorithms and the creation of new law enforcement databases.
“Ring’s Community Alerts help keep neighborhoods safe by encouraging the community to work directly with local police on active cases,” a company spokesperson said in response to questions from BuzzFeed News. “Alerts are created using publicly posted content from the Neighbors app that has a verified police report case number.”
The spokesperson noted that the company secures the “explicit consent” of a customer before the sponsored posts are published to Facebook, and that the company geotargets the posts to “relevant communities.” Community members can then directly share tips to help local police contact people of interest or investigate crimes, the spokesperson said.
Ring said its Community Alerts are intended to keep neighborhoods safe and do not include links to buy its products — implying that the company may not consider such sponsored posts advertisements. But the posts clearly promote Ring’s service and brand, and reach a wider or more targeted audience of potential nonusers on Facebook.
Police departments do not ask Ring to post these alerts, nor do they review them before they are published. An officer with California’s Mountain View Police Department, whose number was listed in a Ring ad, told BuzzFeed News that the department does not ask the company to post alerts on its behalf. The officer, who was unaware of the Ring ad until it was brought to her attention by BuzzFeed News, said the department typically posts similar alerts to its own social media channels.
According to Ring’s own terms of service, the company has the right to use video shared by customers, particularly via Neighbors, the crime-watching social platform Ring launched in 2018 to compete with the likes of the popular Citizen app. But unlike Citizen, Ring has struck formal deals with multiple law enforcement agencies across the US.
Ring says it asks its users for “explicit consent” so law enforcement can use customers’ footage. On its website, the company explains that it occasionally contacts users on behalf of law enforcement, asking them to share video footage to help investigations. “Sharing your recordings is completely voluntary and you can choose which ones you want to share if any,” the website says. A user’s three options at that point are to share videos, review videos, or take no action.
But buried in Ring’s terms of service agreement, under the “Shared Content” section — the section that explains the specific rules for content that users share to Neighbors — the company says:
You hereby grant Ring and its licensees an unlimited, irrevocable, fully paid and royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide right to re-use, distribute, store, delete, translate, copy, modify, display, sell, create derivative works from and otherwise exploit such Shared Content for any purpose and in any media formats in any media channels without compensation to you.
In other words, when law enforcement sends a request to a user, asking them to share information and the user agrees, or if a user chooses to share that content themselves — which is the entire purpose of the Neighbors function within the platform — Ring’s terms of service “grants Ring an expansive copyright license in any shared content, which includes content shared via the Neighbors function,” Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, told BuzzFeed News.
“As I read this, it would permit Ring to use shared content for ads. The license makes clear Ring has the right to distribute, sell, and exploit customer content without compensation to users.”
Jennifer King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, called Ring’s practice of asking for user consent to pass imagery on to law enforcement and then using that footage for its own ads “shady.”
“I don’t know if it’s illegal, but that seems like a violation of expectations,” she said. “There’s a difference between public service and profiteering.”
There’s also the question of whether Ring can use customer footage to train, say, an AI product like Rekognition, the facial recognition tool its parent company Amazon has aggressively pitched to law enforcement agencies. “Ring should tell customers if it is doing this,” Cagle said, explaining that Ring could conceivably argue that pointing a machine learning algorithm at the content is within the bounds of copyright fair use.
Recently, local police in cities across the country have partnered with Ring for access to the platform's neighborhood surveillance network. In some cases these partnerships include community events in which doorbell cameras subsidized by Ring are distributed to local citizens. Subsidies are typically a $100 credit per household; Ring's cheapest subsidized camera available for purchase in these programs is $159.
When asked about Ring’s policies, some users were unaware of the company’s ability to perpetually license user content, but had no issue with the doorbell manufacturer creating ads from footage. Howard Fennel, a 69-year-old from Laguna Hills, California, has never been asked to share video with authorities, but said if he did, he’d be fine with Ring using it for Facebook ads.
“I personally have nothing against it. It doesn’t affect me in any way, and it may help people catch someone,” he said.
But he did share at least some privacy concerns, noting that he wouldn’t want Ring showing identifying information about his home. “As long as it doesn’t get too personal and they don’t ask too many questions, I’m okay with it.”
There is another noteworthy aspect of Ring’s terms of service that most of its customers likely do not know that they agreed to. At the very top of the document, Ring states that a requirement of its TOS is mandatory arbitration — a policy that would prevent any Ring customer from airing a grievance against the company in open court. This means if any Ring user were to try to sue the company over privacy concerns, or any other matter, that claim would have to be resolved privately — without the opportunity for the public to scrutinize the issue.
These days, according to the ACLU’s Cagle, “mandatory arbitration and expansive licenses to user content are far too common in terms of service.”
“But what a company decides to do with that power is what matters,” he said. ●