Ring, Amazon's Smart Doorbell Subsidiary, Settles Privacy Lawsuit with $5.8 Million Fine


May 31, 2023

Ring, Amazon's Smart Doorbell Subsidiary, Settles Privacy Lawsuit with $5.8 Million Fine

In a significant development, Amazon's smart doorbell subsidiary, Ring, has agreed to pay a hefty $5.8 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) following allegations of privacy violations and compromised customer data. This settlement brings an end to a lawsuit filed by the federal agency, highlighting the importance of protecting user privacy in the era of smart home devices.

The First Lawsuit: Breaching Customers' Privacy

One of the lawsuits settled for $5.8 million accused Ring of failing to inform its customers or seek their consent before granting "thousands of employees and contractors" access to watch recordings of customers' private spaces. This blatant disregard for user privacy drew criticism and raised concerns about the responsible handling of personal data.

Alexa's Involvement: A Costly Affair

Another lawsuit, settled for a staggering $25 million, accused Amazon, the parent company of Ring, of violating the FTC Act and the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The allegations stated that Amazon unlawfully collected and retained voice and geolocation data of thousands of children through its voice assistant, Alexa. By leveraging this valuable dataset at the expense of children's privacy, Amazon aimed to train its algorithms to respond better to children's voices.

The FTC argued that children's unique speech patterns offered an important training dataset for Alexa's algorithm. Consequently, the retention of this data, alongside the geolocation information collected by the Alexa app, went against Amazon's initial promises of allowing users to delete such data. The FTC complaint revealed that Amazon ended up keeping some data for years and even retained certain recordings and transcripts indefinitely, all under the guise of enhancing the Alexa algorithm.

Ring's Internal Misconduct and Security Lapses

Aside from privacy concerns, the Ring complaint also shed light on internal misconduct within the company. It was reported that an employee accessed and viewed thousands of video recordings belonging to at least 81 female users between June and August 2017. This concerning behavior was flagged by a supervisor who noticed the employee's exclusive focus on recordings of "pretty girls," leading to the termination of the employee.

Moreover, Ring faced accusations of failing to secure its devices against hacking attacks, resulting in customers being harassed, threatened, and insulted through the camera's two-way communication feature. These incidents highlight the need for robust security measures in smart home devices to ensure user safety and protect against potential intrusions.

A Glimpse into the Future: What to Expect

The settlement reached with the FTC includes provisions aimed at rectifying the privacy infringements. Amazon will be required to delete inactive child accounts, certain voice recordings, and geolocation data. Furthermore, the agreement will impose restrictions on Amazon's use of such information for training its algorithms, ensuring greater protection of user privacy.

To prevent future privacy breaches, a comprehensive data security program will be implemented as part of the settlement in the Ring lawsuit. This program will compel Ring to inform its customers about the extent of data access granted to the company and its contractors. However, it is important to note that these settlements are subject to court approval before taking effect.

Amazon's Defense and Background Context

In response to the allegations, Amazon expressed disagreement with the FTC's claims and denied any violation of the law. The company maintained that Ring had already taken steps to address privacy concerns in previous years. However, it is evident that the settlement reached with the FTC signifies a recognition of the need for improved privacy practices in the smart home industry.

Previously, Ring announced certain security and control measures in 2020, including mandatory two-factor authentication for all users and enhanced options for data sharing preferences. However, security experts argued that these changes were insufficient to adequately protect users' information. Consequently, concerns were raised, demanding further adjustments to Ring's policies and device functionalities.

Additionally, Ring faced significant pressure from lawmakers due to instances of sharing doorbell footage with law enforcement without owners' explicit permission. The company also faced class-action lawsuits alleging inadequate security measures that allowed hackers to compromise devices and threaten users.

The settlement with the FTC underscores the importance of safeguarding user privacy and reinforces the need for continuous improvement in the smart home industry. As technology continues to evolve, it is crucial for companies to prioritize privacy and security to maintain users' trust and confidence in their products and services.