Amazon has made a major announcement today that is sure to have a significant impact on the tech and privacy world. The company has revealed that it will be ending its controversial Request for Assistance (RFA) tool, which has allowed police and fire departments to request doorbell video through Ring’s Neighbors app.
Eric Kuhn, the head of the Neighbors app, shared in a blog post that public safety agencies such as fire and police departments will still be able to use the app for sharing safety tips, updates, and community events. However, they will no longer have access to the RFA tool for requesting and receiving videos within the app. It should be noted that public safety agency posts will remain public and can still be viewed on the Neighbors app feed and the agency’s profile.
The RFA feature has been a major source of concern for privacy advocates for quite some time. In fact, in 2021, Amazon began making police requests public as part of its biannual transparency report. That year alone, the company received over 3,000 legal requests from agencies, which represents a significant 65% increase from the previous year.
Even public officials have voiced their concerns about this tool. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, for instance, wrote an open letter to then-CEO Jeff Bezos in 2019, expressing his worries over the matter:
“Although Amazon markets Ring as America’s ‘new neighborhood watch,’ the technology captures and stores video from millions of households and also collects footage of innocent bystanders who may not even be aware that they are being recorded. I am particularly troubled by the fact that Ring is actively pursuing facial-recognition technology which could potentially flag certain individuals as suspicious solely based on their biometric information.”
In addition to this, Markey also highlighted the issue of biases within facial recognition software, citing concerns over a disproportionate number of misidentifications among people of color.
Amazon has addressed these concerns in its law enforcement guidelines, stating that it reserves the right to respond immediately to urgent law enforcement requests pertaining to imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person. The company also outlined that emergency disclosure requests must be accompanied by a completed request form, and that it makes a good-faith determination based on the information provided and the circumstances described by the officer, in accordance with federal law.
With this latest announcement, Amazon is making a significant change in its policy, which is sure to be seen as a major victory for privacy advocates across the board.