Amazon’s Ring has recently been accused of using fear to sell its doorbell cameras, promoting a culture where neighbors are encouraged to publicly suspect the worst about those they see through the lens, and where they can theoretically consume so many reports of violent crime that they could believe it’s the norm — even though the data suggests that violent crime has fallen sharply.
But most of that discussion has centered around Ring’s Neighbors app, an opt-in community where Ring owners publish their own videos. Today, Motherboard reports that Amazon has published video of a suspected thief in a far more public place: a promoted post on Facebook.
is it legal for ring/amazon to use faces of people, suspected BY THEIR CUSTOMERS to have done crimes, in an advertisement? especially given they havent consented or been convicted or anything. seems uhhh not right pic.twitter.com/a6SnOGT5dl— jonhendrenPeaceful (@fart) June 4, 2019
A Ring spokesperson tells The Verge that this sort of sponsored post is actually a feature it supports, implying that this isn’t a one-off. They’re called “Community Alerts.” Here’s the company’s full statement:
Ring’s Community Alerts help keep neighborhoods safe by encouraging the community to work directly with local police on active cases. Alerts are created using publicly posted content from the Neighbors app that has a verified police report case number. We get the explicit consent of the Ring customer before the content is posted, and utilize sponsored, geotargeted posts to limit the content to relevant communities. Community members can then directly share or post tips to help local police contact persons of interest or investigate crimes.
Ring says that law enforcement doesn’t review or approve the posts, and that it intentionally doesn’t link to its products in these sponsored posts.
But like Jon Hendren points out on Twitter, the idea raises some interesting questions. Is Amazon unfairly implying that this person actually did the crime? And should Amazon be legally allowed to use her face to promote its brand?
It’s not necessarily as simple as “innocent until proven guilty” when it comes to distributing these images, though. For one thing, it’s the Mountain View Police Department (MVPD) that suspects this person, not merely some Ring customer with a wild theory, and the police were spreading this footage anyhow — here’s the MVPD’s Facebook post, here’s the MVPD’s Nextdoor post, here’s a dead link to the MVPD’s newsroom post, and here’s a Palo Alto Daily Post newspaper article with the same basic contents.
An MVPD spokesperson confirmed to Motherboard that the police department didn’t ask Ring to post the footage, though it was grateful for “the additional outreach.”
But the other question — does Ring’s sponsored Facebook post count as an advertisement, and if so, does it violate this person’s right to publicity? — is probably worth exploring. We’ve reached out to some legal scholars, and we’ll let you know what they tell us.
For what it’s worth, the MVPD tells The Verge that it hasn’t found the suspect yet; and though it did receive one tip, that tipster was responding to the department’s own Facebook post, not Ring’s sponsored one.