Ring: Your Doorbell Is Watching

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S1: You might have seen this video that went viral back in the beginning of December. In it, you see an Amazon delivery driver walk up to a front door in a Delaware subdivision to deliver a package.

S2: And then he spots the treats and snacks, drinks, a whole basket of things laid out for drivers like him. This is word he celebrates.

S3: He does a little happy dance here. And we can see all of this because the homeowner, the one put out the snacks to begin with, had a ring. Smart doorbell. The video went on Facebook. Local news picked it up and millions of people shared it as a heartwarming holiday story. The driver, Cory Reid, told Yahoo! News that he didn’t know about the video till he heard about it from his boss, but that he was surprised and humbled by the whole thing. I was thinking about this video and videos like it.

S1: When we called up reporter Caroline Haskins, she wrote a series of investigative stories about Ring the Smart Doorbell Company for Vice. She says videos like this are key for the company.

S4: Capturing these so-called wholesome moments is actually one of two pronged approach to bring social media marketing. So on one hand, they want to be able to catch people who appear to have been deterred from stealing a package or committing some sort of crime. On the other hand, they like to capture kids on camera, animals on camera and wholesome moments like these.

S1: I wanted to know if Caroline, who’s been writing about racing for the past year, saw a heartwarming story or if she saw something else.

S4: It’s been customary for a long time to tip or provide some sort of holiday gift for people that are serving your neighborhood all year round. But it’s a wholly new thing to capture that on a surveillance camera without their consent process, without their permission, and then use that in a way to get Klau online and then have that co-opted by a private company as a way to sell their products.

S5: I don’t see it as a straightforward, wholesome video. I think it’s I think it’s sort of hard to see it that way, but it makes it sort of sad because it was, you know, some genuine happiness captured on camera.

S6: But I guess sort of the subtext for that is a little bit overwhelming for me.

S7: I mean, just briefly, Caroline has been digging into ring, looking at the company’s origins, its partnerships with police departments and its focus on the suburbs. She’s read thousands of emails to and from the company, filed hundreds of public records requests. So when she looks at videos like these, she sees more than just the surface images today on the show, how ring went from a smartphone gadget to a tool in a widening surveillance network owned by one of the richest companies in the world. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and this is What Next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S1: Before Ring was serving up viral videos and recording front porches across the country, it was a different product with a different name and like so many other tech products. The story ring is tied up with the ambitions and outlook of the company’s founder. Let’s go back and talk about how this company started. So tell me about the founder. Who is he? What was he trying to create?

S8: The founder of Ring is Jamie Siminoff. And probably one of the most interesting things about Ring is that it wasn’t founded or created as a home security company. So Jamie Siminoff originally came up with this idea for Daubert in the early 2010, introducing Daubert the wireless video doorbell that links directly to your smartphone.

S9: The whole idea for your boss, it was a pretty straightforward, smart doorbell.

S10: Cameras doabout lets you see and speak with whomever is at your front door.

S11: And this was a part of the company that he was working on called Edison Junior. So the whole idea is you come up with a lot of little products and you see which ones succeed. And so this one, they really started to like dedicate their resources into like crowdfunding and raising money for it. And then it was sort of hemorrhaging money. They appeared on Shark Tank.

S9: Sharks would have been nice to know who was behind the door before you let me in my products where actually they didn’t end up getting an investment. One of the sharks made an offer, but they turned that down.

S1: They got funding after Shark Tank, even though they didn’t get it from Shark Tank. Right.

S8: Right. Basically, I think Jamie Siminoff said something to the effect of appearing on Shark Tank was the equivalent of $10 million in advertising money. So at that point, they were starting to raise venture capital money and they were having some success with that. And if they were sort of floating toward some sort of better financial situation than they were before, it wasn’t a completely stable situation still. So that’s what’s sort of like led them to this rebrand in 2014.

S1: Daubert relaunched as ring. Its design was updated to be more sleek.

S8: And the messaging around the product changed to the early advertisments for Daubert are really focused on this idea of convenience and being able to bounded by the pool and answer the door while you’re lounging by the pool and let people into your home. But some of the early advertisments for it ring its shows like burglars breaking into a home. And so his whole pitch is that by selling a ring doorbell camera, you can see someone who is scoping out your house for a robbery. And by speaking to them through the door about you can deter that from happening. So the whole idea behind ring as opposed to door bought was that your neighborhood is fundamentally unsafe and you need this mediator between your family and the outside world, which is the ring doorbell in order to secure yourself and secure your family.

S1: You also wrote about the fact that, frankly, these devices have become really popular. What did people who owned them tell you they liked about them?

S8: So I understand where certain people were coming from with buying these sort of cameras. I spoke to one person who said, you know, I’m disabled. I have a hard time getting to the door quickly and I like seeing who’s there. I’ve heard some people who said that, you know, my house was broken into. Someone was stalking my sister. I travel for business a lot. Everybody has different reasons for wanting these types of doorbell cameras.

S1: You also talked to some pastors in Baltimore where their neighborhood, frankly, had a pretty contentious relationship with the police and they felt like this was something that could help them feel safer.

S8: Right. Right. So some people feel as if they’re out of options and ring offers this sort of individualistic approach where you take matters into your own hands when you buy this product and you put it on your own doorstep and you can sort of catch people red handed, so to speak. And this is what happened with some of the people from Baltimore that I spoke with. People have described feeling unsafe in their homes and like they can’t they can’t leave or they can’t afford to move neighborhoods. And so if they can’t trust the police, which in Baltimore, there’s a really, really long history of mistrust between the people that live there and the police department. I mean, they’ve been the police department has been found by the Department of Justice to, you know, perpetuate civil rights violation. So basically, ring swoops in and says, well, we have a proven track record of producing and deterring crime in neighborhoods. So they think, well, why not? Why not? Sort of like take matters into our own hands and protect ourselves. And that seems to be sort of a common theme. And people who have these doorbell cameras, the idea of like wanting to protect yourself and like your individual family unit, according to Caroline, it’s not clear whether ring actually deters crime.

S1: There is no peer reviewed. Evidence to back up the company’s claims, but rings. says it does cut crime not just in its marketing to the public, but in what it tells another important group. Police departments.

S8: So for several years, a pretty significant part of rings. marketing strategy has been to appeal to police departments. I think the total number right now is either approaching or it might have surpassed 700 at this point. Agencies they work with. Yes. So when I say partnership, I mean that ring and local police departments usually sometimes it’s up. Even the county level will sign a contract saying the police department will get access to this tool that lets them request footage directly from residents. And, you know, they have to get permission in order to hand footage over to police, but they don’t have to go through the typical process of getting a warrant to request footage from people. And in return, a certain percentage of the contract say that police have to engage with the community and encourage adoption of both to bring cameras and the neighbors platform.

S12: The neighbors platform is rings social media app.

S13: It serves as a kind of central hub for ring users. The app provides crime and safety alerts in real time from neighbors and the local police.

S14: So I’ve gotten e-mails between Ring and several police departments that have said that the law enforcement portal, which is what police used to request from people, it’s more useful the more people use the ring camera. So for police, it makes sense to want to have as many security or surveillance cameras that you can tap in as possible. But Ring is explicitly telling police that this tool that allows them to do that easily is going to be useful under the condition that they promote ring products.

S13: How do police forces and a promoting ring products, are they going out to the community and saying, hey, this thing will make you safer?

S11: So in some cases, they’re distributing download links for neighbors on their official social media channels.

S8: In some cases, police departments have received like free ring products which they’ve given away either through raffles or certain types of games where ideas. I guess your building community engagement and the prize is a free surveillance camera. I’ve seen some cities Greenbay it was that had a bunch of cameras that it loaned out to the public and the police technically owned both the cameras and all of the footage that was captured on the cameras. So I think an important thing to remember about these partnerships is that. It makes sense for rank to want to, you know, have people on their side that at least some people associate with solving or addressing crime. And from police’s perspective, it makes sense to want to have a channel to ask people for footage. But also, even if a person says no, they can reach out to ring and say, please preserve this footage and they’ll go through legal channels in order to like officially like subpoena or get the footage and some other kind of way by the nature of having a doorbell camera. You’re establishing a pretty clear pathway for police to be able to request that footage.

S1: There’s another concern about the footage hacking. In one well-publicized story from Tennessee, hackers broke into a ring camera installed in a bedroom and actually spoke to children. Ring a sense, encourage its users to add two factor authentication and to be careful with their passwords. I asked Caroline if the ring owners she spoke to understood the potential for something like a hack to happen.

S8: Like most Internet of Things products or smart home products, they are vulnerable to events just like this. And among the tens of thousands of emails that I read between ring and police departments and internal discussions of police officers talking about ring, not in one city, not in one email, that I see a police officer raise questions about how secure these devices were or how easy it was to hack them. But it’s a really real risk. And, you know, the case that you mentioned in Tennessee. I mean, those were used to like mock and terrorized families would put cameras inside of their home, you know, are getting literal children.

S15: It’s just it’s very ironic that people, you know, install these cameras because they are afraid and they think it will make them safer. And that is just deployed against them in probably the most cruel possible way.

S16: Caroline says that there are two things that differentiate ring from other home security companies. First, they’re partnerships with police. Second, their relationship to one of the most powerful technology companies in the world.

S1: Let’s shift to talking about Amazon and their ownership here. I think a lot of people don’t know that Amazon owns Ring. How did that happen?

S8: Right. So Amazon acquired a ring in early 2018 and Amazon had an Alexa venture capital fund. And they’ve been investing and bring in some time. And so I guess I think it’s important to think of Amazon acquiring bring in two ways. So one ring is is compatible with Alexa Smart Home Products, so it can be integrated with, I don’t know, the echo dot smart plugs, pretty much any smart home device that Amazon offers. So the whole idea is that ring doorbell cameras can be one node and that larger smart home ecosystem that Amazon wants to offer. And the other thing to keep in mind is that, I mean, package theft means that Amazon loses money. So even though we don’t have proof that, you know. Ring doorbell cameras can reliably prevent or reduce package theft. It could at least appear that the company is being proactive about this or it like providing some sort of product to address this issue that is very real for the company. I guess the idea is that you’re if you’re a loyal Amazon customer and you have a lot of smart home products and you also have Amazon Prime and you’re getting a lot of package for your doorstep, ring could be a part of your home that both integrates with other parts of your home and helps protect the packages that are coming to your doorstep.

S1: It feels a little bit like we’re in a moment of pushback against ring. Civil rights groups have been doing that. They’ve asked Congress to investigate. And then reporters like you have written several pieces that have exposed flaws in the company. Are we at a moment where people are questioning the consequences of something like crime?

S8: I think I think it’s hard to say. I mean, we are seeing this pushback, but we’re also seeing the amount of partnerships between ring and police grow. I mean, nearly daily. It’s really not faltering to to any degree that I can see. And it has pretty much all of the resources of Amazon at its disposal and the ability to have a giant banner ad on its Web site. Advertising Black Friday deals not ring isn’t the cheapest home security camera, but it is a mid-line product that is advertised, promoted and marketed very heavily. It started out being marketed on Shark Tank and then gradually it moved to being marketed by law enforcement. And it’s also a mainstay on TV, on podcasts. It frequently has ads on Fox News HDTV. It had ads on the Ben SHAPIRO podcast. Its reach is really, really deep and multi-pronged.

S17: If a company like Amazon is promoting a products like Red and law enforcement is promoting products like Brand, I think the important thing for consumers to ask themselves is, is this in my best interests and is this in my community’s best interest? What kind of community are we building where there’s a surveillance camera on every doorstep and anyone that appears on camera is either suspicious or not suspicious? What kind of life and community partnerships are we building through that?

S18: Carolyn Hoskins, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

S1: Caroline Haskins is a technology reporter at BuzzFeed.

S19: OK. That’s the show. What next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks and hosted by me. Lizzie O’Leary. And it’s part of the larger what next family Mary Harris and the regular what next team are off next week. But we will be back in your feeds with a new episode on Friday. The twenty seventh TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University, A New America. Thanks for listening. Talk to all next week.