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US Cities Are Helping People Buy Amazon Surveillance Cameras Using Taxpayer Money

DMT.NEWS

The Ring doorbell surveillance camera sits squarely in the center of a Tiffany-blue online flyer, which provides details about a “Security Product Subsidy Event” in Arcadia, California.

“Big Sale,” the advertisement says, in citrus-colored script. "$100 off."

"HELP STOP CRIME BEFORE IT HAPPENS," the ad continues.

This isn't an ad from Best Buy or an electronics store. It’s an ad from the Arcadia city government. The local city government is selling discounted surveillance cameras directly to its residents, and the "discount" is subsidized by the city. In other words, taxpayer money is being paid to Ring, Amazon's home surveillance company, in exchange for hundreds of surveillance cameras.

Cities and towns around the country are paying Ring up to $100,000 to subsidize the purchase of the company’s surveillance cameras for private residents. For every dollar committed by a city per these agreements, Ring will match it. This motivates cities to pledge tens of thousands of dollars to a tech giant that is building a private, nationwide surveillance network—which Amazon is using, in part, to secure the packages it delivers. A typical discount program will last several weeks, or until a certain number of residents take advantage of the program.

Motherboard has identified 14 American cities that have these discount programs as well as one city in the United Kingdom. However, there are probably more cities that have offered similar discount programs. Motherboard has reported that Ring courts local governments and police departments around the country to advertise, distribute, and use its products.

Got a tip about Ring discount programs, police partnerships, or something else? We'd love to hear from you. You can contact Caroline Haskins securely on Signal on +1 (785) 813-1084, or via email at caroline.haskins@vice.com.

Arcadia, CA promotional image for a Ring subsidy program event in December 2018.
Image: Arcadia, CA promotional image for a Ring subsidy program event in December 2018.

Cities are paying Ring so that residents can enter a private, mostly unregulated surveillance ecosystem that includes cameras both outside and inside their homes. Ring’s products are marketed with the typical language of security services, which serves to promote fear and encourage people to snitch on their neighbors. Ring camera footage is accessible at any moment by employees in Ukraine, and all Ring owners are, often unknowingly, engaging in de facto beta testing for Ring’s facial, object, and voice recognition systems. Gizmodo reported Thursday that Ring hires “news editors” to pull 911 call data into its “neighborhood watch” app, Neighbors, for real-time, unconfirmed crime alerts.

“These deals are sinister because Amazon, a company that doesn't need a handout from anyone, has figured out a way to get citizens to fund the very network that will be used to surveil them," said Chris Gilliard, a professor of English at Macomb Community College who studies digital redlining and discriminatory practices enabled by data mining. "It undermines the ideas of transparency and accountability that are supposed to be the foundation of public services to ultimately mainly benefit one of the richest companies in the world.”

“At a time when many communities are questioning and democratically deciding against aggressive surveillance like facial recognition in their communities, this provides Amazon and the police a back door surveillance network that bypasses the will and oversight of the community,” he added.

Ring did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

RING PROMOTIONAL AGREEMENTS

Promotional agreements occur between a city and Ring. These agreements turn city governments, responsible for serving their citizens, into literal advertisers and salespeople for a giant corporation, and at taxpayer expense.

California cities like La Mirada and Alhambra have allotted $10,000 in taxpayer money to these discount programs. Maywood and Temple City, CA have each pledged $20,000 toward a Ring discount program. Since 2017, Arcadia, CA has directed $50,000 toward Ring discount programs and La Cañada Flintridge has contributed at least $44,750. Rancho Palos Verdes approved a $100,000 program in 2017.

La Mirada, CA promotional image for its Ring rebate program.
Image: La Mirada, CA promotional image for its Ring rebate program.

On July 10, the San Marino City Council agreed to pledge $10,000 toward a Ring discount program. The most recent draft of the Promotional Agreement states that Ring will match every dollar that the city pays into the program. This means that for every $100 discount off a Ring product, the city pays $50 and Ring pays $50.

The agreement also requires the city to “make reasonable efforts to promote the program,” and it names several examples of how to do so: post on the city’s website, city social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, distribute brochures and flyers at City Hall, and issue a “joint press release” between Ring and the city.

Ring is also required to “provide marketing support and materials” in order to help the city market its products. Per the agreement, Ring must “collaborate with the City on the distribution and marketing” of Ring products.

The agreement also regulates how individual city employees are allowed to speak about Ring.

“Additionally, no statements should be made by any City officer or employee about Ring’s products and services, which isn’t in writing and hasn’t been approved in advance by Ring,” the agreement reads.

"This turns my stomach,” Evan Greer, deputy director of civil rights group Fight for the Future told Motherboard. “Amazon isn't just building an unaccountable, for-profit surveillance empire, they're getting the government to subsidize it with our tax dollars.”

CONCERNS ABOUT RING PARTNERSHIPS

Toward the end of the July 10 city council meeting for San Marino, CA, the city's Vice Mayor Gretchen Shepherd-Romey expressed concern about the city’s potential promotional agreement with Ring.

Shepherd-Romey was concerned that not enough city residents would take advantage of the 45-day promotional period because too many people are on vacation, and concerned that people would install their discounted cameras on their vacation homes instead of their San Marino homes.

Other residents and city council members were also skeptical about entering a promotional agreement with Ring. They were mainly focused on the fact that city residents may not need a discount.

“I guess what I don’t understand is, I don’t know why the city would pay $50?” one city resident asked during the open comment period. “I don’t understand why city funds would be used on a thing like this.”

“I have the same thing, why would we pay $50?” one city council member added. “But I trust the public safety commission and I think this could be a good way to prevent and deter crime.”

The city council unanimously approved the measure to sign a promotional agreement with Ring. The 45-day promotional period, representatives agreed, would begin after September 1, after most people’s vacations have ended.

San Marino resident Andrew Ko told Motherboard that the city's arrangement with Ring makes no sense.

“Why are we spending $10,000 when we have trouble paying for emergency services in San Marino?” Ko said. “This is troubling because the City just passed a budget and the Police Department is already asking for a budget amendment to transfer funds from the General Fund to pay for this program."

Alhambra, CA flyer for a Ring discount program.

Image: Alhambra, CA flyer for a Ring discount program.

HOW RING PROMOTIONAL AGREEMENTS WORK

Promotional agreements typically apply to most Ring products, including its doorbell camera, “Floodlight” camera, and “Stick Up” cameras, which can go outdoors or indoors. According to public city council meeting notes from Rancho Palos Verdes, the agreements can even apply to a Ring solar panel. However, some advertisements for discount programs only mention Ring doorbell cameras, Ring’s most inexpensive product. Promotional agreements can fund two main types of programs: online promo codes, and in-person discount events.

Through discount programs, residents can enter a promo code during their online checkout get up to $100 off a Ring product. For instance, the City of Commerce, CA made a Facebook post in November 2016 claiming that residents can get a $100 on a doorbell camera on Ring.com.

“Just visit Ring.com and enter promo code Commerce99 for the discount on the state of the art video doorbell system,” the post reads.

This appears to be one of the most popular types of programs, as it’s taken place in several California cities, including Arcadia, La Mirada, Maywood, Diamond Bar, Lancaster, La Cañada Flintridge, and West Hollywood.

Discount events, meanwhile, usually take place at in-person somewhere in a city, often at a shopping center or community center. Although promotional agreements are approved by local governments, sometimes local police participate in the promotion of Ring products at these in person events.

South Gate, CA promotional image for a Ring discount event.
Image: South Gate, CA promotional image for a Ring discount event.

For instance, Arcadia has hosted at least two Ring Subsidy Events. One such event was advertised by the Arcadia Police Department on NextDoor. The event, which took place in December 2018 at the Arcadia Masonic Lodge, offered attendees a $100 discount on the purchase of any Ring product. A nearly identical event in Arcadia took place in 2017, and a local news report claims that about 300 people attended.

Alhambra, CA hosted an event in 2018 at the "Emergency Preparedness Fair" at the city's Farmers Market. The South Gate, CA police department hosted an event in 2018 at a local shopping center. The event descriptions typically note that people have to provide proof of residency to be eligible for the discount.

Cities identified by Motherboard that have offered Ring discount programs include Arcadia, CA; Commerce, CA; La Mirada, CA; Maywood, CA; Diamond Bar, CA; Lancaster, CA; Alhambra, CA; Monrovia, CA; Temple City, CA; La Cañada Flintridge, CA; South Gate, CA; Rancho Palos Verdes, CA; Redondo Beach, CA; West Hollywood, CA; and Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom.

RING PARTNERSHIPS WITH POLICE

Ring has also partnered with at least 225 law enforcement agencies around the country. Unlike discount programs, which are made between Ring and a city, these partnerships are between Ring and police departments. Police partnerships sometimes require police to “encourage adoption” of Ring products by buying Ring’s doorbell cameras and downloading Neighbors, Ring’s free “neighborhood watch” app, per reporting from Motherboard.

Police use a variety of tactics in order to encourage the adoption of Ring products as a part of their partnerships with Ring, such as raffles and giveaways. Motherboard has obtained these emails, flyers, and contracts via public record requests from Wolcott, CT; Waynesboro, VA; and Lakeland, FL.

Motherboard obtained documents from the Waynesboro, VA police department, which show that the department created a raffle event shortly after it entered into a partnership with Ring. The documents include the draft of a flyer for a Ring product giveaway. The flyer has the heading “WIN FREE HOME SECURITY PRODUCTS!!!!” above an image of the Waynesboro Police logo with an array of four Ring products.

Waynesboro, VA flyer for a Ring product giveaway program obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Waynesboro, VA flyer for a Ring product giveaway program obtained by Motherboard.

“To celebrate our partnership with Ring, we are giving away a home security package to ONE City of Waynesboro resident. The kid includes a Ring Wireless Doorbell 2, Ring Wireless Spotlight Camera, Ring Chime Pro Wi-Fi Extender, and a Ring Solar Security Sign,” the flyer reads.

Motherboard obtained documents from the police department of Wolcott, CT which include an extremely similar giveaway flyer. The flyer shows a local police officer holding the box for a Ring doorbell camera, and the heading reads, “WIN A FREE RING DOORBELL!”

“To celebrate our partnership with Ring, we are giving away a Ring Doorbell to TWO Wolcott resident (see below for other requirements),” the flyer reads. “To enter, simply download the Neighbors App by Ring at download.ring.com/wolcott or text wolcott to 555888 and then comment below this post that you downloaded it.”

Wolcott, CT flyer for a Ring product giveaway program obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Wolcott, CT flyer for a Ring product giveaway program obtained by Motherboard.

In exchange for promoting Ring products, the company grants police access to Ring’s “Law Enforcement Neighborhood Portal.” This portal acts like an interactive map that shows the approximate location of every Ring product in a given area. Police can then request footage directly from Ring camera owners without a warrant.

Similar giveaway programs have also been initiated by the police departments of Livonia, MI; Mahwah, NJ; Newark, NJ; and Palmdale, CA.

MAKING NEIGHBORHOODS SAFER

Activist groups like Fight for the Future have criticized Ring for creating a privatized, unregulated dragnet surveillance program, and called for cities to stop partnering with the company. However, the details of Ring partnership and promotional agreements show that the company is dedicated to legitimizing its products among local law enforcement and government officials in order to maximize the proliferation of its products.

Greer told Motherboard that although Ring claims their mission is to “make neighborhoods safer,” a world with more cameras is more dangerous—especially for people of color and activists, who are often targeted by law enforcement.

“I think we need to think about what we mean when we say safety,” Greer said. “And to me, there’s nothing more unsafe than privately run surveillance dragnet, with a very cozy relationship with law enforcement, spreading very quickly across our cities.”

All of the documents that informed this article are now public and viewable on Document Cloud.


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Caroline Haskins, BruceDayne