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'Fear is for sale': how a doorbell turned into a network that tracks all of America

Once the American company Ring was a modest manufacturer of smart doorbells, DoorBot. Today her cameras are in homes throughout the United States, and local authorities are seriously worried about the security of personal data, because information about leaks and hacks appeared not once. Writes about it MC.today.

Screenshot: YouTube / Ring

It is noteworthy that the main R&D office of the company that is engaged in development is located in Kiev - it was he who was featured in one of the first scandals.

Baltimore start

Pastor Troy Randall lives in northwestern Baltimore. According to him, the area was seized by drug dealers, and the police did nothing.

Preacher Terry Moore, Randall’s friend, heard about Ring in a radio ad: a company owned by Amazon sells surveillance cameras that can be installed both outside and inside the house. There is also a Neighbors application (“Neighbors”) - it allows you to download videos and share them with other users.

For Randall, Ring products were literally a gift from heaven. As president of the homeowners' association in his area, he had already asked Baltimore City Hall to install street cameras, but was refused.

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Since the mayor’s office does not want to pay for a video surveillance system, nothing prevents the residents from securing their own security, he decided.

How to Sell a Security Guarantee to the Vulnerable and Frightened

Ring's mission is to “reduce crime in residential neighborhoods.” And although there is no real evidence that there are fewer crimes, a single statement about this is enough to successfully trade in such products.

Actually, this helped the company to deploy a network of surveillance cameras throughout the country. Numerous discount programs and more than 600 partnership agreements with the police helped her in this.

As part of a partnership with Ring, police are gaining access to the Law Enforcement Neighborhood portal created by the company. This is an interactive map, thanks to which officers can request camera recordings directly from residents of the area without issuing an order.

In exchange for access to the portal, the police will advertise Ring products. At the same time, it is necessary to approve in advance what exactly they will say about the company.

Recently, people began to oppose such agreements: in August 2019, the Fight for the Future campaign began. In October, 36 civil rights groups signed an open letter: they demanded to break all police agreements with Ring, adopt new laws and investigate the company's activities.

Previously, camera recordings were publicly available, the research department in Ukraine tested on them developments in the field of recognition of faces, objects and voices. Now the company denies that it is conducting such developments.

And now the most important point: Ring was bought by the Internet giant Amazon. Now Ring is not just a camera manufacturer. It is an important node in the network of smart home devices that are compatible with Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant.

In fact, Amazon took over the firm, which has slowly built a private video surveillance system throughout the United States. Each buyer has his own reason, but there is one general answer that explains everything: Ring is a marketing company that realized that you can make money by selling fear.

As written in one of the Ring blog posts for 2016: "Fear is for sale."

Screenshot: YouTube / Ring

Founder Ring

Jamie Siminoff, the founder of Ring, was not originally going to create a private network of surveillance cameras. First of all, he is an inventor, a person who is passionate about the culture of Silicon Valley startups.

He has long been fascinated by the ideas of great entrepreneurs. On his personal page at Tumblr You can find inspirational quotes from Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, links to WIRED and TechCrunch magazines, publications about the economic downturn and its impact on IT startups.

He dreamed of becoming a legend. He wanted to change the world. Was full of ambition. And was afraid of failure.

Siminoff began to dream of a career as an entrepreneur in his youth. In an interview in 2008 he told how in high school he was a sales representative and sold motorized paragliders. According to him, one cost about $ 13 thousand, for each unit sold Jamie received $ 6 thousand commission.

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Siminoff studied entrepreneurship at a small business school, Babson, in a suburb of Boston, where he received a diploma. Over 10 years, he created four companies, two of which he later sold.

In 2011, Siminoff founded Edison Jr., a company that developed new technologies. He wrote about this on his page in Tumblr. Having launched several moderately successful projects, the Siminoff team came up with the DoorBot product in 2012. Initially, it was a doorbell with a camera so that the owner of the house could see through the smartphone who came.

DoorBot was not positioned as a product for home security. It was just a nice “smart” little thing for convenience. But Siminoff, it seems, knew from the very beginning that the potential of DoorBot is far greater than all the rest of its products.

The advent of doorbot

According to Siminoff, DoorBot was created in the garage. In 2012, he led a team of five in Edison, Jr. The inventor complained that people constantly rang the doorbell, which irritated him incredibly.

“And I thought: what the hell, why hasn't anyone come up with a doorbell connected to a smartphone yet?” - explained Siminoff in an interview with Digital Trends. So there was DoorBot.

Siminoff repeated this story in corporate blogs и commercials; an exact copy of the garage was even shown on Consumer Electronics Show in 2019. It’s easy to understand why.

The Garage Startup has already become a cliché among the stories of the founding of IT companies, a sort of integral element of the “dirt to riches” model when an intellectual businessman with a bright dream literally pulls himself out of poverty, earns millions and settles in a huge mansion.

The main problem with DoorBot was that people found it a poorly implemented product. This was confirmed by reviews for August 2014. MacSource experts saidthat, despite the cool idea, the video quality was terrible, and the sound appeared and disappeared.

At CNET (a site where news, articles and reviews of equipment and technologies are published) the product was rated 5,6 points on a 10-point scale. On a Amazon site, one of the buyers wrote: “This thing is dumber than my old dumb call. I would set it to zero if I could. Nothing worked as it should. ”

Users talked about the same problems: bad picture, bad sound, poor Wi-Fi connection. That is, not a single function of those that were necessary for the normal operation of the product did not work as expected.

But in Edison Jr. were determined to bring DoorBot to success at all costs. By January 2013, the company raised $ 173 to finalize the product. He was advertised on IT blogs, including Mashable, New Atlas и Digital Trends. However, very soon Edison Jr. "Out of money".

But here the Shark Tank show (“Sharks of business") came to the rescue.

This is a popular TV show where entrepreneurs advertise their business to investors (the very “sharks”). Siminoff managed to break into the show. The episode with his participation was aired in November 2013.

“If not for the show, our company would no longer exist,” - Siminoff spoke in due time. And he is right. DoorBot would not have survived and would not have turned into a Ring if it had not been given a chance in Business Sharks.

Broadcast on television and the early days of Ring

“People spend billions of dollars on home equipment that can be connected to a smartphone,” said Siminoff. - At the same time, the doorbell, one of the most popular technologies, has not changed since its invention in 1880. Up to this day. Introducing DoorBot, the first doorbell video call made for a smartphone. You can see the guests who are ringing your doorbell and talk to them even if you are not at home, ”explained Siminoff at the show.

He showed the “sharks" how DoorBot works.

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“Now, sharks, join in.” The next time you hear this [from the speakers there was a familiar doorbell], it will be like this [the sound of the cash register opened in the studio, and Siminoff threw a handful of banknotes into the air like confetti]. So, who is the first to ring my door? ”He asked investors.

Four "sharks" did not want to invest. Kevin O'Leary agreed, but Siminoff refused because he did not want to give him a 10% stake in the company.

In the end, he left the program empty-handed, but it didn’t matter. A month after the episode was aired, in December 2013, a start-up capital of $ 1 million was raised for the DoorBot project. Five companies involved in venture capital investments gave money. In July 2014, two more companies invested $ 4,5 million in the project.

In September 2014, DoorBot was restarted under the new name - Ring. DoorBot, which sold part of a smart home with a connection to a smartphone, has died. Instead, the Ring arose - a small box guarding vulnerable American homes that were endlessly threatened by the outside world.

DoorBot looked like a filter for an aquarium with a giant protruding camera. Its only difference from the toy robot was a black bell button with a luminous rim of a traditional blue color.

The Ring's camera was simple and elegant. The flat front panel looked a bit like an iPhone. The black camera at the top looked like a phone screen, and the call button was located where it usually has the main menu button.

With the light hand of industrial designer Chris Leva, the idiotic DoorBot design has turned into a Ring - a neat, streamlined and rather formidable-looking product to protect your home.

As soon as DoorBot reincarnated as a Ring, the tone of commercials changed dramatically. Many of them began with hacking scenes. In one of the videos, thieves broke into the house through the windows in the middle of the night. They combed rooms and rummaged through things.

“That's how you should imagine a robbery at home,” Siminoff states confidently. “However, 95% of the robberies are actually committed in broad daylight.” And so I created the Ring video call. ”

Screenshot: YouTube / Ring

Brave New World Ring

In 2015, Ring agreed with Wilshire Park, a small neighborhood in Los Angeles with a population of about 500 people. The company installed free doorbells in 8% of homes. According to police reports, the number of robberies has drastically decreased.

Press Wrote about this experiment exclusively in positive tones. Information about Wilshire Park was part of the official Ring promotional materials.

“After installing Ring Video Doorbells doorbells in 41 houses of the Wilshire Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, the number of robberies decreased by 55% from June to December 2015 compared to the same period in 2014,” Ring Flyer.

However, it is not clear whether this is actually so. There is no data or methodology by which this figure was calculated (55%), so it is impossible to verify the statements of Ring and the Los Angeles Police Department. However, according to the report Mark Harris in review for Massachusetts University of Technology, the number of house robberies in the Wilshire Park neighborhoods from June to December actually increased from year to year.

“Without knowing the exact location of the inspection and the areas that the company took for comparison,” Harris wrote, “it’s impossible to verify how their statements match the evidence.” He also noted that for thorough scientific research it is necessary to study the influence of a much larger number of new calls in dozens of different regions. And the time period for evaluation should be longer.

Nevertheless, the company realized that, in cooperation with city halls and law enforcement agencies, it would be able to enter the growing market of high-tech products and services aimed at ensuring the rule of law.

Why Amazon Bought Ring

Amazon bought Ring in 2018 for $ 839 million. This was not a surprise - Amazon has been actively investing in the company for two years. The exact amount is unknown, but in 2016 Ring received $61,2 млн venture financing, and in 2017 - $109 млн.

“Together with Amazon, we will accomplish our mission much faster and connect more“ Neighbors ”around the world, as well as make our security systems more accessible to users,” said Siminoff in two press releases on behalf of Ring и Amazon.

The price of Ring products has not decreased since its acquisition by Amazon. For example, the ring Doorbell 2 cost $ 194 in 2017. On Amazon, it now costs $ 199.

However, there is evidence that Amazon acquired Ring for two reasons: the company wanted to expand its product line for smart homes, as well as protect its parcels from theft - they are often stolen, you just have to leave the recipient at the door.

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Amazon, of course, does not openly declare the latter, but the Amazon Fulfillment division, which is responsible for package delivery and product protection, worked directly with Ring and the police. Together they carried out special operations in which they used “baits” - parcels allegedly from Amazon in company boxes sealed with branded adhesive tape.

Parcels were left on the doorsteps of houses with Ring video calls. So did in Hayward (California), Aurore (Colorado), Albuquerque (New Mexico) и Jersey City (New Jersey). Motherboard has received documents for these operations from Hayward, Aurora and Albuquerque. They say that the main objective of these operations - to fix the thief with a fake parcel on the Ring camera and arrest him. But there was a less obvious goal - to make the media talk and write about it as much as possible.

Although none of these operations led to the arrest (at least there is no information about this), all the parties involved did their best to pretend that they were actively fighting crime.

Andrew Ferguson, a professor at the College of Law at the University of the District of Columbia, said Amazon probably wanted to acquire the Ring also because the latter had long worked with law enforcement. According to him, Amazon is constantly looking for new markets for its profitable cloud computing products - Amazon Web Services.

“Amazon sees local governments as a major buyer of these services. Law enforcement agencies seem to her an easy way to conclude major contracts with local authorities. ”

When Ring comes to town

Siminoff believed that a dreamer techie who does not accept the word “no” can change the world. Ring actually changed the world, but not at all as its creator imagined.

His invention did not just turn an ordinary doorbell into a smart device. It has become part of Amazon’s anti-theft scheme. Hundreds of police stations used it in their daily operations. This device has created a culture in which millions of people watch not only each other, but also themselves, and this has become the norm.

Baltimore pastor Randall said that Ring, in response to his request, immediately agreed to help. Residents were offered 150 free camera calls, which usually cost about $ 100 apiece. People only need to pay $ 3 each month for cloud storage of camera recordings. The total amount from all houses was $ 5 per year.

Randall and Moore applied for a grant from city officials on behalf of the Northwest Partnership of Believers. In October 2018, they received $ 15 thousand to pay for cloud storage and camera installation. But there was one snag: Baltimore's police department must sign a contract with Ring and the Northwest Partnership of Believers before the company hands them the cameras.

Baltimore police have not yet signed it. However, it was signed by more than 600 other law enforcement agencies, and this figure is growing almost every day.

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