Lawmakers in Congress have previously raised concerns about Ring’s close ties to police, and how often the Amazon-owned company has shared footage with law enforcement without owners’ consent. Markey in particular has long criticized the company over potential privacy concerns stemming from its video doorbells.
Larkin’s story illustrates how far a request can go, even when a camera owner initially cooperates with the police.
After sending the initial footage, Larkin started to find the police demands onerous. “He sent one asking for all the footage from October 25,” Larkin said. That was a far bigger ask, he said. Larkin told POLITICO that he has five cameras surrounding his house, which record in 5 to 15 second bursts whenever they’re activated. He also has three cameras inside his house, as well as 13 cameras inside the store that he owns, which is nowhere near his home. All of these cameras are connected to his Ring account.
He declined that request. He says his main concern at first was practical: each clip, even if it were only 5 seconds long, would take up to a minute to download and send over.
After he stopped cooperating, he didn’t hear from the detective again, until he received an email from Ring, notifying him that his account was the subject of a warrant from the Hamilton police department.
This time, Larkin wasn’t able to choose which cameras he could send videos from. The warrant included all five of his outdoor cameras, and also added a sixth camera that was inside his house, as well as any videos from cameras associated with his account, which would include the cameras in his store. It would include footage recorded from cameras he had in his living room and bedroom, as well as the 13 cameras he had installed at his store associated with his account.
Larkin, now incensed that police were requesting footage from inside his home for an investigation that didn’t even involve him, wanted to fight the warrant. He estimated that a lawyer would have been too expensive, and he only had about seven days to challenge it before Ring would comply. He still doesn’t understand how a judge could have signed off on a warrant asking for footage from a camera inside his home, when the investigation was on his neighbor.
“That says to me that the cops can go in and subpoena anybody, no matter how weak their evidence is,” he said.
The Hamilton police department got the video footage it requested.
Its community affairs supervisor, Brian Ungerbuehler, declined to comment on why the agency requested footage from all of Larkin’s cameras, citing an active investigation. He added that the department did not obtain any video footage from inside the house.
Larkin said it was fortunate his indoor camera listed in the request was unplugged for the timeframe the warrant specified, while his living room and bedroom cameras are only activated when his home alarm system is active.
Privacy advocates point out that the police don’t have unfettered authority in demanding footage: They need to get a warrant from a judge, who’s expected to exercise some control, just as they do when granting a search warrant. Judge Daniel Haughey, who signed off on the warrant, didn’t respond to requests for comment on Larkin’s case.
Though Larkin’s warrant was unusually sweeping, warrants themselves are increasingly common. After concerns from activists and lawmakers about Ring’s role in community surveillance, the company began in 2020 publishing a transparency report on law enforcement requests the company receives.
The report shows that the number of search warrants it receives has grown significantly each year. It received 536 search warrants in 2019, the first year covered by the report. In the first half of 2022, it received 1,622 requests.
Ring, too, has declined to provide footage in the past. According to its transparency report, it sent back no information in response to 113 out of the 536 warrants it received in 2019, and 634 out of 1610 warrants in 2020.
Daley, the spokesman, told POLITICO the company carefully reviews every search warrant and legal process it receives when it determines how to respond, and that its products give its customers choices to maintain people’s privacy. While Ring lets you delete stored footage and data associated with your account, you need a court order to prevent the company from complying with government requests.
While companies are legally obligated to cooperate with police when they receive a warrant, they’re able to push back on what they provide if it feels like the request is too overreaching. Apple has famously pushed back against the FBI’s requests to unlock devices, a stance it still holds.
Ring stopped providing information on how many warrants received no responses in 2021, and did not offer a response to POLITICO’s question about why the disclosures changed.
Though the Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect Americans from broad law enforcement searches, the legal system’s protection for citizens hasn’t caught up to digital advances.
When police request a warrant for a physical search, the affidavits are usually required to be specific, down to the item that they’re searching for and what room it’s in. When it comes to electronic communications, the line is blurrier. In the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, Congress created a fresh standard for surveillance as technology evolved: The law prevents unauthorized government wiretaps on electronic data. But it doesn’t address more nuanced questions, like how much data the government can request. For an electronic search, because data can be nearly unlimited, courts have struggled with how to restrict these warrants, Lynch said.
As a result, she said, it’s common to see warrants for data asking for swaths of digital records that would be considered an overreach by judges if it were for a physical search.
In warrants for digital communications such as emails, search histories and messages, the warrant’s subject is usually the suspect under investigation — but when it comes to surveillance footage, which is passively recording hours of footage in public spaces, you can be an innocent bystander and still find police asking for your data. The lack of legal controls on what police can ask for, and judges failing to properly scrutinize these warrants, opens the door for even indoor home footage to be lumped in with these legal demands.
For its part, Ring says it would be open to discussing data request guidelines and guardrails on what law enforcement agencies can get from an electronic warrant. “We welcome the opportunity to work with Congress to help ensure we are protecting customers while also supporting the legitimate needs of law enforcement,” Ring’s Daley said.
Privacy advocates at organizations such as the EFF and the ACLU have called for reforms to ECPA, which would close some of the loopholes in government data requests like being able to obtain data without a warrant through third parties.
Still, these reforms wouldn’t address issues with judges rubber-stamping warrants without proper review, leaving people like Larkin struggling for privacy from government requests.
“That’s the thing that upsets me the most — the fact that a judge just signed off on that,” Larkin said. “He’s just going to hand over footage of mine, and the case doesn’t even involve me in any way, shape or form.”