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Amazon says it's given information from Ring cameras to police without owners' consent

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A lot of people feel they're always being listened to and watched. Are they wrong? So-called smart devices are pretty nosey and invasive - listening, watching and always alert. They can provide convenience and security. But how secure is the information they absorb about us? Amazon, which we should note, is an NPR underwriter, has revealed that they've shared video and information from their Ring cameras with law enforcement officials without consent or warrant. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is investigating the matter. And in a response to his inquiry, the company said it provided video footage 11 times so far this year when an emergency request was made. We're joined now by the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, Ed Markey. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

ED MARKEY: Oh, great to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: In that letter to you, I gather, Senator, they said that more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies and more than 450 fire departments are enrolled in what they call its Neighbors safety app. And they have an online portal where they can request the data in cases of life-threatening emergencies. Are you concerned about this?

MARKEY: Yeah, and those numbers, by the way, that you just mentioned, are a fivefold increase in law enforcement on its platform just since 2019. So this is turning into a partnership between Amazon and the police of the United States of America. And Ring revealed that it has shared user recordings with law enforcement through a process that does not require user consent.

SIMON: Amazon says, though, that it provides that information only when there's imminent danger of death or serious physical injury. If it helps save someone, does that make it all right?

MARKEY: The standard should be, has there been a process that guarantees that the American people are allowed to know that there has been a false choice made between their safety and their privacy? But if this information is compromised, it should have to go through the same legal process that any other search of private property would have to go through in our country. It just can't be an exception because it's available.

SIMON: In other words, police should get a warrant.

MARKEY: The police should have to get a warrant in the same way they do in any other situation. And if it's an emergency, a judge can issue an emergency warrant. But we have protections in place, and all of those protections should be applied to this new technology.

SIMON: Are you concerned about this technology being used for surveillance rather than emergency now or in the future? Or is that to be determined?

MARKEY: Yes, my fear is that we are turning into a surveillance society and that everyone just has to go along with this. And it has just become increasingly difficult for the public to move, to assemble, to converse in public without being tracked and recorded.

SIMON: I wonder, Senator Markey, in any of the information that you've gotten so far, if you've received evidence that this technology has been helpful in deterring or resolving crimes?

MARKEY: I don't think that's the question. I think the question is whether or not the police are obtaining the proper legal permission. Otherwise, it's just a false choice that's set up where all of a sudden you allow the police to do whatever they want in the United States just because they're intending to do a good thing. That's not our standard. That's China's standard.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the technology. I mean, our family, for example, doesn't have smart speakers 'cause we don't trust them, but we sure do have smartphones. And every now and then, my phone will say, here's your answer, Scooter - you know, to indicate that they're tuned in, even when we haven't asked them anything. It's comic and chilling all at the same time.

MARKEY: Exactly, and the more sophisticated these technologies become, the more protections we have to put in place. I don't think our policies in our country have caught up with that. And that's why I've introduced legislation to stop law enforcement from accessing sensitive information about us.

SIMON: Do you suggest citizens just not opt into that technology until you feel you and your colleagues can resolve the law?

MARKEY: Yeah, my feeling is that people right now should not be excessively trusting of Amazon or of the technology. Right now, you have to opt in as a Ring user to set up end-to-end encryption so that Amazon does not have access to your videos. I would encourage users to go to their settings and review that option right now as they're listening in order to give themselves the maximum protection.

SIMON: Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts - Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

MARKEY: Great to be with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: We asked Amazon about the issues raised by this investigation and if they provided data from other Amazon devices. We didn't get a specific response. A Ring spokesperson told us this. Quote, "Ring doesn't give the government or anyone else unfettered access to customer data or video. Just like other companies, Ring, on rare occasions, provides information to law enforcement on an emergency basis, and there's an imminent danger of death or serious physical injury, such as a kidnapping or an attempted murder. Dedicated members of the legal team review these requests, and we do not always provide data in response."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.