US police can request videos from smart home devices

Ring door bell
Buyers invite the spy into their homes with Ring, Nest & Co. (Source: Amazon)

Providers such as Amazon and Google can make data on their U.S. users available to the police without having to obtain a court order to do so. The only prerequisite is that it is an emergency, according to the companies. Video recordings of smart home devices and security cameras from Amazon subsidiary Ring and Google subsidiary Nest respectively can also reach security authorities in this way.

The two companies have set out these exceptions in their respective data protection agreements, as reported by the civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), among others. Normally, authorities would first have to produce a warrant, subpoena or similar court order to get the data.

This year alone, Amazon has provided private video that came from its networked Ring Doorbells to U.S. police 11 times using this method. That’s according to a published letter from the company to U.S. Senator Ed Markey dated July 1. In each of those cases, Ring would have determined that there was an imminent threat to life and limb.

The EFF criticizes such arrangements could lead to abuses by police. “Police will always be tempted to use them for less and less urgent situations,” the organization warns. The organization sees civil liberties in jeopardy.

No control in an emergency

The data transfer is not just about data from smart home devices, but about all user information stored by the companies. However, data from smart home devices is particularly sensitive: Ring’s doorbells are equipped with cameras and sometimes film entire sections of the street. The Google subsidiary Nest also offers such devices. The cameras transmit their recordings via the Internet to the companies’ servers.

Google’s and Amazon’s privacy policies for the U.S. state that in most cases, authorities must provide a warrant, subpoena or similar court order before releasing data. However, Google also writes in its privacy policy, “If we reasonably believe that we can prevent someone from dying or from suffering serious physical harm, we may provide information to a government agency.” Such emergencies could include bomb threats, school shootings, kidnappings, suicides or missing persons cases, for example.

So far, however, there has apparently been no such data sharing at Google Nest. That’s because, as a spokeswoman for the company told IT news site The Verge, “If there is an ongoing emergency where getting Nest data would be critical to addressing the problem, we are, per the TOS, allowed to send that data to authorities. To date, we have never done this, but it’s important that we reserve the right to do so.” A team would review the requests in accordance with the group’s policies.

Nest said it tries to notify users when their data has been shared with authorities following an emergency request. However, it said that would only take place once the emergency had passed.

Lack of transparency

Amazon has set up a separate website for requests from authorities and provides a request form for said emergencies. There, officials have to specify, among other things, what the situation is and why there is too little time to make a legally binding request.

The online retailer told news site CNET that all (emergency) law enforcement requests would be reviewed by its legal department. Emergency requests would be denied if the company believes law enforcement can quickly obtain and serve a search warrant.

Amazon would not comment on the background of the 11 emergency requests that were granted. The cases involved kidnapping, self-harm and attempted murder, among others, a spokesperson told CNET.

When asked if affected customers had been notified that footage from their Ring cameras had been shared, Amazon replied, “We have nothing to share.”

Voluntary data donations

According to US media, US authorities are allowed to make emergency requests of this kind to the companies. How the companies respond, however, is up to them. For example, The Verge writes, “Legally speaking, a company is allowed to share this kind of data with police if it believes there’s an emergency, but the laws we’ve seen don’t force companies to share.”

The director of the NGO Fight for The Future, Evan Greer, also points out on Twitter that there is no legal obligation to give law enforcement access to the data so easily. “They [Amazon] are rolling out the red carpet because they see their relationship with the cops as a way to solidify their monopoly power,” Greer writes.

Other manufacturers refuse

Manufacturers Apple, Arlo, Anker and Wyze told CNET they would not allow authorities to access footage from your smart home cameras unless a warrant or court order is presented.

Arlo told CNET, “If a situation is urgent enough for law enforcement to request a warrantless search of Arlo’s property, then this situation also should be urgent enough for law enforcement or a prosecuting attorney to instead request an immediate hearing from a judge for issuance of a warrant to promptly serve on Arlo.”

Apple and Anker said they do not have access to users’ videos themselves. The end-to-end encryption used prevents this, they said.

Amazon and the police

Amazon’s Ring subsidiary has repeatedly attracted attention for its proximity to U.S. law enforcement agencies. In June 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported that the company specifically used police officers as influencers to advertise its own surveillance products. More than 100 officers were reportedly provided with networked doorbells and cameras or discount codes for free at the time. In the same move, police departments were reportedly promised access to the video recordings of Ring customers.

In addition, a portal has been in place in the U.S. since 2019 that allows police to specifically ask Ring customers if they will share their surveillance video with authorities. “Many people are not going to feel like they have a choice when law enforcement asks for access to their footage,” Matt Cagle of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told The Intercept.

In 2021, the EFF had filed a lawsuit against Ring for releasing videos of Black Lives Matter demonstrations to the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). With the support of the mayor, the SFPD is currently demanding permanent real-time access to the devices – and thus to live footage from thousands of cameras distributed across the city. In this context, human rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warn of a surveillance network of unprecedented proportions.

“Amazon must consider the danger these products pose to the public by creating a growing web of surveillance systems that are owned by individuals, but are de facto operated by law enforcement.” EFF also warned. (hcz)