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Congress asks Amazon whether it is becoming a police snitch

The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy has written to Amazon asking the internet to explain partnerships between surveillance company Ring and local police departments.

Home security and surveillance products are becoming increasingly popular with the consumer, though it appears the subcommittee is asking Amazon to explain the fine print. As with most products and services launched by Silicon Valley residents, Ring seems to be accompanied with legal jargon few will understand and may well compromise privacy and data protection principles.

“The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy is writing to request documents and information about Ring’s partnerships with city governments and local police departments, along with the company’s policies governing the data it collects,” the letter states.

“The Subcommittee is examining traditional constitutional protections against surveilling Americans and the balancing of civil liberties and security interests.”

The question which the politicians seem to be asking is how compliant Ring will in handing over information to law enforcement agencies or local government authorities, as well as the fundamentals of the partnerships themselves. Once again it appears the technology industry is revelling in the grey lands of nuance and half-statements.

Ring currently has partnerships with more than 900 law enforcement and local government agencies, it is critically important that everything is above board. This isn’t just a quirky product adopted by a few individuals anymore, this is potentially a scaled-surveillance programme. The opportunity for abuse is present once again, offering validity for Congress to wade into the situation and start splashing.

Optimists might suggest Ring is being a good corporate citizen, aiding police and security forces where possible. Cynics, on the other hand, would question whether Amazon is attempting to create a private, for-profit surveillance network.

One area which the Subcommittee would like some clarification on is to do with how compliant Ring would be when offering data to government agencies. Ring has said it would not turn over data unless it is “required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order”, though the wording of the terms of service seem to undermine this firm stance.

Ring may access, use, preserve and/or disclose your Content to law enforcement authorities, government officials and/or third parties, if legally required to do so or if we have a good faith belief that such access, use, preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to: (a) comply with applicable law, regulation, legal process or reasonable governmental request.

The final point of this clause, reasonable government request, is what should be considered worrying. This is unnecessarily vague and flexible language which can be used for a wide range of justifications or explanations for wrongdoing.

More often than not, politicians on such subcommittees are usually chasing a headline, but this seems to be a case where proper investigation is warranted. Law enforcement agencies and the internet giants have shown themselves on numerous occasions not to be trustworthy with minimal oversight. And when you are talking about a topic as sensitive as data privacy, no blind trust should be afforded at all.

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