Do Ring Employees Have Access to Customer Surveillance Feeds?
According to a report by The Intercept, Ring employees can view customer video feeds in order to help train its AI software.
Should a person have to give up a little bit of privacy in order to be more secure? Some people may be okay with that trade-off, however, they likely aren’t assuming they are being spied on by their camera’s manufacturer.
According to a report by The Intercept, beginning in 2016 Ring provided its R&D team in the Ukraine access to a folder on Amazon’s S3 Cloud storage service that contained every video created by every Ring camera around the world.
The Intercept’s source said the video files were left unencrypted because Ring leadership’s felt the “encryption would make the company less valuable,” due to the expense of implementing encryption and lost revenue opportunities due to restricted access.
The source also said, “Ring unnecessarily provided executives and engineers in the U.S. with highly privileged access to the company’s technical support video portal, allowing unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras, regardless of whether they needed access to this extremely sensitive data to do their jobs.”
All an engineer needed was an email address in order to watch cameras from that person’s home. The source does says they never personally witnessed any egregious abuses.
Apparently Ring’s decision to grant this type of access was due to the poor performance of its in-house facial and object recognition software.
The intercept says Ring actually used its Ukranian “data operators” to manually tag objects in order to help train its AI:
Computer vision has made incredible strides in recent years, but creating software that can categorize objects from scratch is often expensive and time-consuming. To jump-start the process, Ring used its Ukrainian “data operators” as a crutch for its lackluster artificial intelligence efforts, manually tagging and labeling objects in a given video as part of a “training” process to teach software with the hope that it might be able to detect such things on its own in the near future. This process is still apparently underway years later: Ring Labs, the name of the Ukrainian operation, is still employing people as data operators, according to LinkedIn, and posting job listings for vacant video-tagging gigs: “You must be able to recognize and tag all moving objects in the video correctly with high accuracy,” reads one job ad. “Be ready for rapid changes in tasks in the same way as be ready for long monotonous work.”
A second source, with direct knowledge of Ring’s video-tagging efforts, told the Intercept that the video annotation team watched footage from not only outdoor and doorbell camera models, but from inside households as well.
The source said that “Ring employees at times showed each other videos they were annotating and described some of the things they had witnessed, including people kissing, firing guns and stealing.”
When The Intercept reached out to Ring spokesperson Yassi Shahmiri with questions about the company’s data policies, he said:
We take the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information extremely seriously. In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring videos. These videos are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes.
We have strict policies in place for all our team members. We implement systems to restrict and audit access to information. We hold our team members to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our policies faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties. In addition, we have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them.
After publishing the report, Shahmiri told The Intercept that “Ring employees never have and never did provide employees with access to livestreams of their Ring devices,” a claim contradicted by multiple sources, according to the publication.
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