New Curbs on Ring’s Neighbors Program Fail to Ease Privacy and Civil Rights Concerns

The 100-plus reforms to the neighborhood watch network are lacking, advocates say

Ring doorbell Photo: Ring

Ring’s two-year effort to make its neighborhood watch network less objectionable to privacy and civil rights advocates appears to have fallen short.

Amazon-owned Ring announced last week that it had made over 100 changes to Neighbors by Ring to address the findings of a two-year audit by the New York University School of Law Policing Project, a program dedicated to improving policing through democratic engagement.

Neighbors is used by both Ring users and its partner police agencies to share videos and information that could, in theory, help solve crimes. But the network and its law enforcement partnerships have been accused by digital rights and social justice groups of unfairly targeting communities of color.  

Some of the more notable changes that Ring has implemented include:

  • No longer donating devices or money to police agencies.
  • No longer participating in police sting operations.
  • Not onboarding immigration and federal law enforcement agencies.
  • Halting Ring’s practice of citing its positive impact on crime reduction in communications and marketing materials (until the data can be verified in an independent study).
More on Ring

To see more of the changes Ring made, read the last section of the Policing Project’s audit report (PDF).

Groups that responded to Consumer Reports’ request for comment said the changes aren’t enough. 

“Amazon’s tweaks are too little, too late,” says Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “Given the litany of threats these systems pose to the public, including racial profiling, false arrest, police violence, and persistent tracking, you’d expect evidence they actually help promote safety. But Amazon continues to fail to provide any compelling evidence that these tools do more than spread surveillance and suspicion.”

Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, says that “most of the changes Ring has made are about benefiting Ring customers, not their neighbors, the delivery drivers who have to come to their door, or the kids playing in playgrounds across from some creep’s Ring camera.”

She adds that “no matter how many changes Ring makes or press releases they publish, nothing will change the fact that neighborhoods that are blanketed in cheap privately owned cameras will be less safe, not more safe.”

Ring, however, defends its efforts.

“Making neighborhoods safer means working with different stakeholders in a community,” says Brendan Daley, head of corporate reputation PR for Ring. “Ring’s approach has always been to put customers and their communities at the center of what we do, which is why we invited the Policing Project and their experts on law enforcement and technology to conduct this audit. We are proud of what we’ve accomplished with NYU, and we believe the 100+ changes we’ve made benefit neighborhoods across the country.”

The lead auditor for the Ring study says reform efforts need to go well beyond Ring.

“There are larger societal issues that need to be addressed, including how police rely on private surveillance and social media,” says Farhang Heydari, executive director of the Policing Project. “To address these critical challenges, our report suggests a legislative approach. We strongly believe regulation is needed, and have spoken with many in the civil liberties community about it. Pushing for regulation is essential because it is magical thinking to believe vendors who are reaching a wide market with a lawful product will simply quit, or even that many of them will subject themselves to external audits.”

These aren’t the first changes that Ring has made to its products, Neighbors network, and police partnerships in response to critics and hacking incidents.

In early 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic, Ring launched its Control Center privacy dashboard, which allows Ring users to opt out of receiving law enforcement video requests. This year, the company also added end-to-end encryption for select Ring cameras (preventing Ring and anyone else from seeing your footage) and stricter limits on how law enforcement agencies can request footage.

According to a nationally representative Consumer Reports survey (PDF) of 2,223 U.S. adults in January 2021, 10 percent of video doorbell owners said they’ve shared footage with law enforcement. An additional 12 percent of owners said they haven’t shared footage but have had a reason to do so.

For more information on Neighbors by Ring and your rights when the police request camera recordings, see our guides on the Ring Control Center and what to do when the police ask for footage.

Home Content Creator Daniel Wroclawski

Daniel Wroclawski

I'm obsessed with smart home tech and channel my obsession into new stories for Consumer Reports. When I'm not writing about products, I spend time either outside hiking and skiing or up in the air in small airplanes. For my latest obsessions, follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@danwroc).