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Expert: Amazon surveillance deal with cops sets troubling precedent

One of Amazon's Ring cameras. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

Amazon recently faced controversy related to its facial recognition technology, but it’s within another realm of surveillance that the company is catching flack now.

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Boing Boing tech journalist Cory Doctorow recently published a story on how Amazon is using its Ring doorbell cameras to allow police to access footage without a warrant from unsuspecting customers, and he joined KIRO Radio’s Candy, Mike and Todd Show to explain how this is a troubling development for personal privacy.

“This sounds like the backdoor creation of a corporatist kind of surveillance network, not to get all paranoid on you,” co-host Todd Herman noted.

“Well, it’s a corporation building a surveillance network — I don’t know what else you’d call it,” Doctorow responded.

Essentially, Doctorow and other journalists on sites like Gizmodo and Motherboard learned through public records requests that Amazon had brokered a series of deals with at least 250 police departments across the country.

Those deals — largely hammered out behind closed doors — basically allow local law enforcement agencies to reach out through Amazon to Ring doorbell camera users, and ask to see their footage, in instances where they suspect a crime may have been captured on a recording.

That left some problematic gray area in terms of how that process has actually played out.

“We’re finding out that the cops, at least in one case, can just go to Amazon and say, ‘This footage is important to our investigation,’ and whether or not the person whose doorbell shot the footage has said yes, Amazon will turn it over. They say it’s the equivalent of a subpoena, which is a funny way of saying not a subpoena at all,” Doctorow described.

Over the course of his research, Doctorow has faced pushback from Amazon’s public relations on numerous occasions. In those interactions, the company has claimed it has nothing to hide, while splitting hairs over the way certain things are framed.

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“You get these these objections from Amazon PR that they’re objecting to phrasing, but when you ask them about the substance, they say, ‘Oh no that’s substantively correct,'” he said.

Still, this has Doctorow wondering why Amazon is obscuring its deals with police departments in the first place.

“I mean if they’ve got nothing to hide, why if they shrouded all of this in secrecy?” he posited. “Why aren’t they trumpeting from the hills that local law enforcement and Amazon are working together? There are still a lot of questions to be resolved.”

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