Amazon-owned home security company Ring has long maintained that its video-enabled doorbells do not use facial recognition technology. On Wednesday, it reaffirmed that commitment to the Washington Post, stating that its devices do not employ the controversial tech that some US cities have banned.
“Ring does not use facial recognition technology,” a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News on Thursday, repeating the claim.
But that’s not the whole story, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. While Ring devices don’t currently use facial recognition technology, the company’s Ukraine arm appears to be working on it. “We develop semi-automated crime prevention and monitoring systems which are based on, but not limited to, face recognition,” reads Ring Ukraine’s website. BuzzFeed News also found a 2018 presentation from Ring Ukraine's "head of face recognition research" online and direct references to the technology on its website.
Ring’s contradictory statements about its facial recognition efforts is just the latest example of the Amazon-owned company’s lack of transparency regarding its products. On Wednesday, the company revealed that it was working with more than 400 law enforcement agencies in the US, after spending months stonewalling media outlets, activists, and researchers who asked questions about the company’s partnerships with police departments.
“We are on the verge of an unprecedented increase in state and private spying that will be built in plain sight,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, wrote in an op-ed in BuzzFeed News last month. “It will be built in winsome partnership between corporations and government agencies hungry for more data and control.”
On Wednesday, after months of public pressure, Ring disclosed partnerships with 405 US police departments — nearly double the amount previously known — that allow officers to easily request video footage from Ring users in the investigation of potential crimes. A Ring spokesperson also said the company has no law enforcement partnerships outside the US.
Bought by Amazon in early 2018 for more than $800 million, Ring has become a leading purveyor of internet connected doorbells thanks in part to relationships with police departments that help to market its devices. Customers have installed more than 10 million Ring doorbells worldwide, a former executive told a Ukrainian news outlet last month. A Ring spokesperson declined to confirm this number, saying only that the company has “millions of users.”
Police departments with Ring partnerships currently have the ability to see the general vicinity of camera locations in a community. Officers, using a tool called Ring Neighborhoods Portal, can then request that users who post videos to Ring’s app, Neighbors, share those clips with law enforcement. As BuzzFeed News previously reported, Ring’s terms of service gives the company an irrevocable, perpetual license to the video content users post on Neighbors.
Documents obtained by Motherboard found that some police departments were required to distribute free Ring cameras to residents and encourage adoption of the Neighbors app, while some cities paid Ring up to $100,000 to subsidize Ring cameras for community residents.
The American Civil Liberties Union has raised concerns over law enforcement's potential use of facial recognition software in Ring devices. Ring’s parent company, Amazon, makes facial recognition software Rekognition, which is already in use by police departments.
A 2018 report by the ACLU found that the Rekognition software falsely matched 28 members of US Congress with mugshots in its database. At the time, Jacob Snow, an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, told BuzzFeed News, “Amazon seems to have missed, or refuses to acknowledge, the broader point: facial recognition technology in the hands of government is primed for abuse and raises significant civil rights concerns.”
“Ring is not Rekognition and does not work with Rekognition,” a Ring spokesperson said.
In November 2018, Ring filed two patent applications that describe technology with the ability to identify “suspicious people” and create a “database of suspicious persons.” A company spokesperson said that while Ring “uses object detection to reduce the amount of false motion alerts,” it does not currently use facial recognition technology.
That seems to belie the work being done at Ring Ukraine, which had a “head of face recognition research” as of the spring of last year. In March 2018, Oleksandr Obiednikov identified himself using that title and published a presentation that showed how cameras could better identify street signs and employ “Alignment-free Face Recognition.”
The following April, Obiednikov spoke at the Open Data Sciences Conference in Kiev, where he was billed as “leading the Face Recognition Department at Ring Ukraine.” According to his LinkedIn profile, Obiednikov is still employed at Ring Ukraine, working on “Computer Vision problems.” His profile makes no mention of the phrase “facial recognition.”
Obiednikov did not return a request for comment. A Ring spokesperson did not respond to questions about his presentation or title.
While Ring devices do not have facial recognition today, it is possible it could deploy the technology in the future. In December 2018, the Information reported that Ring gave its Ukraine-based research team access to customer videos in order to train image recognition software, potentially for use in Ring cameras. This use of customer videos is, in fact, allowed by the company’s terms of service, which says that Ring has the right to unilaterally “access and use your User Recordings” for “developing new Products and Services” — like facial recognition.
Ring Ukraine, which reportedly has 1,000 employees and may grow to 1,500 next year, makes no secret of that. Its website touts its work creating “state-of-the-art neural networks to reduce crime in neighborhoods” with “the best Image Quality laboratory in Europe.” And the company is looking for more engineers to join its ranks.
An entry-level job posted two months ago for a deep learning engineer in the Kiev office notes that the employee “will work closely with members of our Research and Engineering teams to improve models and bring products to the market based on your research.” But to apply, it requires practical experience in topics including object detection, action recognition, or face recognition.
When asked about the job posting, a company spokesperson denied that the job posting was from Ring's official LinkedIn page, though it linked to Ring Ukraine's page of the professional networking site. When pressed again, the spokesperson then said, "Ring does not have an office in Kiev, but does utilize third party contractors there."
The Ring spokesperson did not reply to follow-up questions about the specific relationship between Ring and Ring Ukraine and did not provide comment about the post's mention of face recognition.
With reporting from Jane Lytvynenko in Toronto.