When Ring wanted to boost sales of it surveillance cameras and burnish its self-styled image as a crime-fighting company, it embarked on a brand-ambassador marketing campaign that would be familiar to many startups. But rather than chase down the Instagram influencers or beat bloggers, the company instead wooed officers at the Los Angeles Police Department.
For years, including during Amazon’s early ownership of the company, Ring gave no fewer than 100 LAPD officers free devices or discount codes worth tens of thousands of dollars, and possibly more, according to a new report from the Los Angeles Times.
Emails obtained by the LA Times through a public records request reveal Ring employees encouraging LAPD officers to “spread the word about how this doorbell is proven to reduce crime in neighborhoods” and offering freebies and discounts.
“Ring and its relationship with police departments, including the LAPD, is but one example of a burgeoning problem in which there is a lack of clarity as to where the public sector ends and private surveillance capitalism begins,” Mohammad Tajsar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, told Ars.
As word of the influencer campaign spread through the LAPD, officers who weren’t approached by Ring employees reached out to them anyway, requesting free products and discounts.
“We have a favor to ask..,” wrote Officer Maria Gray. “Every year, we have a West LA Division Beach party… We use our measly station fund and buy some gifts to raffle off as prizes. Without me asking, do you see where I’m going with this email? More importantly, we’d love for you to come and attend. Bring some friends, our treat.” August Cziment, Ring’s director of operations, replied, “We’d be happy to donate a Ring Doorbell and perhaps a new Solar Powered Security sign if that’s of interest? :)”
Another station received more than $12,000 in freebies after an officer sent an email containing promotional language that he first had Cziment approve.
LAPD has an ethics code, of course. It says that officers may not “use their position to secure directly or indirectly unwarranted privileges or exemptions for themselves or others” and they “shall not accept any gifts, gratuities or favors of any kind which might reasonably be interpreted as an attempt to influence their actions with respect to City business.” But for many of the cases the Times uncovered, the LAPD did not appear to be concerned. Discount codes are “generally not in conflict with our Code of Ethics,” Det. Meghan Aguilar told the LA Times. “Of course, each situation is looked at on a case by case basis.”
One email exchange shows how officers blurred the lines between advocating for a class of security products like security cameras—which is allowed and sometimes encouraged—and becoming outright salespeople for specific brands like Ring. Officer Eric Mollinedo emailed Ring’s Cziment in April 2016 asking for promo codes and a free doorbell, mentioning that he would be working a booth at a public safety fair. Cziment happily sent him a free unit along with flyers for the booth. Mollinedo later emailed Cziment, saying, “Was a good day today at the Public Safety fair… talked up Ring and had (5) officers/reserve officers purchase them!”
Tajsar, the ACLU attorney, said this sort of arrangement isn’t surprising. “Ring in particular has a history of poaching police chiefs and executives, hiring them, and then using them to peddle Ring’s wares with the connections they have from their former lives,” he said. “It really is a revolving door Ring has created to gain market share across the country. That raises a whole host of ethical concerns about corruption, pay to play, and ethics rules around disclosures.”
Ring’s campaign came at a time when the company had partnered with LAPD to give out 500 free video doorbells in Los Angeles’ Wilshire Park neighborhood in an attempt to prove its crime-fighting claims. In March 2016, LAPD and Ring held a joint news conference announcing that, after installing just 40 cameras in the neighborhood, burglaries had dropped by 55 percent in six months. Later, the company would amend the results, saying the drop occurred over seven months, not six.
Neither claim was peer-reviewed, and Ring hasn’t released the specifics of its study, but a report by MIT Technology Review cast doubt on the findings. After receiving the locations of the installed cameras from the neighborhood association and after examining public data on crime in those districts, reporter Mark Harris found that burglaries had, in fact, increased when compared with the previous year. What’s more, by 2017, burglaries had surged to their highest in seven years. Nonetheless, Ring continued to tout its “crime fighting” capabilities.
Civil liberty concerns
Ring wound down its influencer campaign in 2019, according to a spokesperson. That was around the time it rolled out its Neighbors app, which allows users to share and comment on nearby videos. LAPD was given access to a special Ring-provided portal to locate and request footage. The company bills the portal as a time-saver, saying in videos it sends to police departments, “No more going door-to-door to look for cameras and asking for footage.” All investigators have to do is set a specific time and area of interest and Ring assists in contacting users whose camera logs match the query.
“That’s exactly why Ring is so aggressively marketing toward police departments,” Tajsar said. “They see police departments as the cat’s paw. They can do Ring’s marketing for them rather than Ring coming directly to us.”
The portal also allows law enforcement in many instances to sidestep the need for a warrant, which provides judicial oversight and greater transparency. Since many Ring users voluntarily post videos to the Neighbors app, departments have access to a pool of people who are more willing to share footage with them.
After the LA Times contacted Ring for comment ahead of the story, the company updated its policies so people can view footage requests from law enforcement agencies by adding a post category called “Request for Assistance.” Ring told Ars it had been working on the feature “long before the LA Times reached out.” The hitch, though? You have to use the Neighbors app to view the requests.
The spread of a privately controlled surveillance network that offers ready access for law enforcement has privacy advocates concerned. “The potential for abuse here is tremendous,” Tajsar said.
“It has so much room for civil liberties violations,” Heidi Boghosian, a lawyer and former executive director of the National Lawyers Guild, told the LA Times. “When you have the escalation of people’s fears of property or violent crime, it changes the way they interpret ordinary actions of someone walking down the street or ringing their doorbell,” she said, “And that can [lead to] communities of color [being] falsely accused of crimes.”
Update 10 am EDT: A Ring spokesperson sent Ars the following statement: “The practices and programs in question do not reflect Ring today. We stopped donating to law enforcement and encouraging police to promote our products years ago. As Ring has grown, our practices have evolved, and we are always looking for ways to better serve our customers and their communities.”