This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Eileen Guo is an Ida B. Wells Fellow, and is being co-published by MIT Technology Review and Consumer Reports.

A few hours before dawn in early May of last year, four police officers were dispatched to an address that they had come to know: the home of Gemma Smith in Cape Coral, Florida. (Her name has been changed because of the sensitivity of the crimes described.) 

There, they arrested the man who had broken into and entered the home: Smith’s ex-boyfriend of almost 15 years, the father of her young daughter and, for most of their relationship, the perpetrator of her physical and emotional abuse. It was the second time in six months that officers in the city of almost 200,000 people on Florida’s southwest coast had responded to a call that Smith’s ex-boyfriend had violated an order of protection.

Her ex claimed to have entered through a window. But thanks to a new tool in their arsenal, the police could show otherwise. As part of a program to combat domestic violence, Smith had been loaned an Amazon Ring doorbell camera. The video showed the suspect letting himself into her home with a key that, until then, she didn’t know he had. 

The deputies on the scene confiscated the key, and Smith sent them the Ring camera footage, which they used to press charges for burglary and violation of the injunction. 

“A much wider system of surveillance”

When Ring launched eight years ago with a crowdfunding campaign, the market for home surveillance cameras and video doorbells barely existed. Now Ring has it cornered: in 2020, the company sold an estimated 1.4 million devices globally—as much as the next four competitors combined, according to a report by the business intelligence company Strategy Analytics. Many consumers are drawn in by Ring’s central marketing pitch: that the cameras can reduce crime by making it easy to keep an eye on people’s front porches, driveways, and—often—passersby.The company’s acquisition by Amazon in 2018 has further expanded Ring’s reach, as have its close partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Ring has partnered with more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies and 360 fire departments across the United States, providing free doorbell cameras to police officers, fire fighters, and members of the public, usually in exchange for promoting Ring and the Neighbors app.

As a result of these partnerships, police forces around the country are awash in Ring cameras. Ring gave free devices to individual officers as well as entire departments from 2016 to January 2020, often in exchange for promoting the cameras and their accompanying social network and app, Neighbors by Ring. Until June 2021, the company also provided a special Neighbors portal that let law enforcement request access to footage from Ring owners, even if they had not posted it publicly.

Today, more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies across the US use the Neighbors app, along with more than 360 fire departments. Ring’s partnerships with many police forces give the participating departments a “much wider system of surveillance than police legally could build themselves,” as Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, wrote in a June 2020 letter to Amazon. 

Despite the company’s focus on police partnerships, it’s unclear how much the cameras actually help in deterring or solving crimes. After its first pilot project in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2015, Ring said the presence of its cameras had reduced burglaries in the neighborhood by 55% from the previous year, but the figure could not be replicated by independent analysis. 

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups have raised concerns about how Ring’s cameras and app may lead to racial profiling, excessive surveillance by police, and a loss of privacy—not just for the consumers who purchased the cameras and opted in to Ring’s privacy policies, but also for every passerby caught on a camera. 

As these doorbell cameras have become more widespread, law enforcement agencies have experimented with using them in more targeted ways, including to address one of the most intimate and complicated of crimes: domestic violence. 

That was how there came to be a Ring video doorbell mounted next to Gemma Smith’s front door. A program started in Cape Coral in 2019, designed in close collaboration with Ring, offered video doorbells free to domestic violence survivors “as an additional resource for them to feel safe in their residence and potentially assist in the prosecution of their offenders,” according to Cape Coral Police Department documents obtained through a public records request. Ring helped start similar programs elsewhere. Shortly after Cape Coral’s pilot began, two initiatives were launched in Texas, with the San

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By: Eileen Guo
Title: How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras
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Published Date: Mon, 20 Sep 2021 15:00:00 +0000

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