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Technology review


How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Eileen Guo is an Ida B. Wells Fellow, and is being co-published by MIT Technology Review and Consumer Reports.

A few hours before dawn in early May of last year, four police officers were dispatched to an address that they had come to know: the home of Gemma Smith in Cape Coral, Florida. (Her name has been changed because of the sensitivity of the crimes described.) 

There, they arrested the man who had broken into and entered the home: Smith’s ex-boyfriend of almost 15 years, the father of her young daughter and, for most of their relationship, the perpetrator of her physical and emotional abuse. It was the second time in six months that officers in the city of almost 200,000 people on Florida’s southwest coast had responded to a call that Smith’s ex-boyfriend had violated an order of protection.

Her ex claimed to have entered through a window. But thanks to a new tool in their arsenal, the police could show otherwise. As part of a program to combat domestic violence, Smith had been loaned an Amazon Ring doorbell camera. The video showed the suspect letting himself into her home with a key that, until then, she didn’t know he had. 

The deputies on the scene confiscated the key, and Smith sent them the Ring camera footage, which they used to press charges for burglary and violation of the injunction. 

“A much wider system of surveillance”

When Ring launched eight years ago with a crowdfunding campaign, the market for home surveillance cameras and video doorbells barely existed. Now Ring has it cornered: in 2020, the company sold an estimated 1.4 million devices globally—as much as the next four competitors combined, according to a report by the business intelligence company Strategy Analytics. Many consumers are drawn in by Ring’s central marketing pitch: that the cameras can reduce crime by making it easy to keep an eye on people’s front porches, driveways, and—often—passersby. The company’s acquisition by Amazon in 2018 has further expanded Ring’s reach, as have its close partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Ring has partnered with more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies and 360 fire departments across the United States, providing free doorbell cameras to police officers, fire fighters, and members of the public, usually in exchange for promoting Ring and the Neighbors app.

As a result of these partnerships, police forces around the country are awash in Ring cameras. Ring gave free devices to individual officers as well as entire departments from 2016 to January 2020, often in exchange for promoting the cameras and their accompanying social network and app, Neighbors by Ring. Until June 2021, the company also provided a special Neighbors portal that let law enforcement request access to footage from Ring owners, even if they had not posted it publicly.

Today, more than 1,800 law enforcement agencies across the US use the Neighbors app, along with more than 360 fire departments. Ring’s partnerships with many police forces give the participating departments a “much wider system of surveillance than police legally could build themselves,” as Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, wrote in a June 2020 letter to Amazon. 

Despite the company’s focus on police partnerships, it’s unclear how much the cameras actually help in deterring or solving crimes. After its first pilot project in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2015, Ring said the presence of its cameras had reduced burglaries in the neighborhood by 55% from the previous year, but the figure could not be replicated by independent analysis. 

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups have raised concerns about how Ring’s cameras and app may lead to racial profiling, excessive surveillance by police, and a loss of privacy—not just for the consumers who purchased the cameras and opted in to Ring’s privacy policies, but also for every passerby caught on a camera. 

As these doorbell cameras have become more widespread, law enforcement agencies have experimented with using them in more targeted ways, including to address one of the most intimate and complicated of crimes: domestic violence. 

That was how there came to be a Ring video doorbell mounted next to Gemma Smith’s front door. A program started in Cape Coral in 2019, designed in close collaboration with Ring, offered video doorbells free to domestic violence survivors “as an additional resource for them to feel safe in their residence and potentially assist in the prosecution of their offenders,” according to Cape Coral Police Department documents obtained through a public records request. Ring helped start similar programs elsewhere. Shortly after Cape Coral’s pilot began, two initiatives were launched in Texas, with the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) and the Sheriff’s Office for Bexar County, which surrounds the city.

There is a logic to these programs. After all, who would be more concerned about a potentially dangerous visitor at their door than someone who had just left an abusive partner? 

In 2019, Ring and local law enforcement agencies in Florida and Texas launched new pilot programs offering free cameras to hundreds of domestic violence survivors, building off of existing partnerships.

But some domestic violence experts are concerned that these initiatives inject a combination of potentially dangerous factors into the lives of those they are supposed to protect: law enforcement that doesn’t always listen to survivors; a technology company with a patchy record on privacy and transparency; and programs launched without much department oversight—or input from experts on domestic violence. 

Technologies such as Ring cameras “make the process of intervening in domestic violence more convenient, maybe more efficient,” says Laura Brignone, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies the intersection of technology and violence against women. “But they don’t necessarily make it better.” 

And yet the programs are expanding, according to a yearlong investigation conducted by Consumer Reports, Type Investigations, and MIT Technology Review. Email correspondence shows that the state of Florida received approval from the federal Department of Justice to use Crime Victims Fund money to provide doorbell cameras to domestic violence survivors statewide. (The expansion was put on pause in 2020 when the nonprofit partner the state was planning to work with was investigated for potential fraud.) In addition, a large new program is launching in Harris County, Texas.

Ring’s involvement with these programs has both domestic violence advocates and privacy experts raising concerns. Ring cameras are controversial even for use by the average consumer, and the concerns are heightened for people facing the emotionally fraught crimes of domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault. Experts question whether these always-on surveillance devices, provided by police departments with close ties to Ring marketing representatives, are really the right tools to make survivors safer.

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence
JOAN WONG

How domestic violence is policed

Domestic violence affects an estimated one in three US adults at some point during their lives. It accounts for more than 40% of all murders of women—856 deaths in 2017, according to the latest CDC figures.

Law enforcement has a flawed record of responding to the problem. Domestic violence generates the largest single category of calls to police, according to a 2009 Department of Justice report, but advocates for domestic violence survivors have long criticized police for either failing to take allegations of abuse seriously, or responding with a narrow approach of protective orders, arrests, and prosecutions that don’t always help the victims. 

“I think police officers are put in a very difficult position when it comes to domestic violence,” says Abbie Tuller, who ran a domestic violence shelter in New York City for years before pursuing a PhD at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York, where her doctoral dissertation is on domestic violence policy interventions. “The tools and tactics that they’ve been taught to help the victim are not necessarily how it plays out with domestic violence survivors.”

Even so, when one of the biggest technology companies in the world offers free cameras to help address the problem, it can be an attractive proposition. The police feel that they’re getting an always available sentinel standing guard in front of the homes of repeat victims of crime. 

However, “the reality is that [police intervention] may not be the safest thing,” says Tuller, who now has a private therapy practice and teaches at CUNY as an adjunct assistant professor. “Sometimes it can be the most dangerous because it’s taking a situation and escalating it.” 

To qualify, get an injunction

When the Ring pilot programs started in 2019, they were small. Bexar County set aside 50 cameras for “stalking victims, family violence victims, anybody with a protective order,” Sheriff Javier Salazar said in a press statement when the program launched. Cape Coral allocated 100 devices for domestic violence survivors, and San Antonio allocated 171 devices to survivors of family violence and sexual assault who had filed police reports. In Cape Coral, the domestic violence program was initially meant to run for a year. 

Former Cape Coral police chief David Newlan says he came up with the idea for that city’s program after a 2017 case in which domestic violence escalated into a murder-suicide. The perpetrator had been barred from approaching the victim by a restraining order, and he was required to wear an ankle bracelet monitored by a third-party company. On the day of the murder, the monitoring company failed to notify the police when he violated the injunction by approaching the victim’s home. “​​If I was a victim, I wouldn’t want to be dependent upon a third party, especially in a different state, monitoring a bracelet,” Newlan says. “I’d want to have that same access myself, so I can actually know, if I’m the victim, what’s going on.”

The San Antonio Police Department’s program started after Ring approached the city’s domestic violence coalition, “and presented them with this idea of having the Ring systems given to law enforcement,” according to Aaron Gamez, an SAPD community services specialist who then designed the program. 

In Bexar County, some devices had already been donated to the sheriff’s office in exchange for the office promoting the Neighbors app. Emails show that Ring planned to send the sheriff’s office 15 cameras for 279 app downloads by residents in September 2018 alone, which Ring rounded up to 300. (It’s not clear whether these cameras were ultimately used in the domestic violence program.)

All the domestic violence programs placed requirements on survivors who wanted to participate. In San Antonio, individuals must have first filed a relevant police report. In Cape Coral, a protective order was required, and anyone receiving a camera had to agree to hand over Ring footage to the police if asked, or risk losing the camera. Bexar County required “that the survivor be fully cooperative with law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office” in prosecuting the case, according to an emailed statement from the department’s public information office.

To recruit participants, a victims’ advocate typically would reach out after an incident of violence, or when a police report had been filed or an injunction granted. San Antonio, which runs the largest of the three programs, would conduct a threat assessment of survivors interested in the program, considering factors such as whether the case involved weapons, stalking, a history of protective-order violations, or escalating violence. San Antonio did not require participants to have protective orders, but took them into account as one factor when deciding whom to accept into the program.

SAPD also put a lot of weight on whether individual investigating officers felt like a camera would be “beneficial to the case,” either by providing an additional layer of security to the survivor or offering evidence that could strengthen a prosecutor’s hand, Gamez says. 

In Bexar County, devices were donated to the sheriff’s office in exchange for the office promoting the Neighbors app. Emails show Ring planned to send the sheriff’s office 15 cameras for 279 app downloads by residents in September 2018 alone.

Smith, in Cape Coral, received her camera in early 2020, shortly after her ex had violated the protective order she had taken out against him. She was visited by a victim services advocate, Christine Seymour, who ran Cape Coral’s camera program. Smith says she had heard of Ring but had never thought about purchasing one of the video doorbells herself. But when the service was offered free—the device normally costs at least $99, plus an optional annual video storage subscription fee of at least $30—she said yes. 

Seymour had the camera with her, but the police department was not responsible for installing it—Smith’s father did it for her. Seymour also gave Smith a “participant agreement”—a contract between those receiving cameras and the Cape Coral Police Department. Anyone taking part agreed to keep their injunctions active. Participants also acknowledged, “I may be removed from the program if I refuse to provide requested footage” to the police. 

It’s not clear how popular these programs have been. The San Antonio program distributed 158 of its 171 cameras. However, in the first year of Bexar County’s program, no more than 15 survivors signed up for one of its 50 cameras, according to Rosalinda Hibron-Pineda, a victim services specialist at the sheriff’s office. And in Cape Coral, where 100 cameras were available, Seymour said that only 24 had been given out. 

“We really thought we would be more inundated,” Seymour said in a phone interview in September 2020. “We’re really not, which is kind of a nice thing.” Many people had expressed interest, she added, only to change their minds when they were told an injunction would be required. When a survivor expressed those doubts, Seymour said she told them, “Well, I’m sorry, then you won’t qualify.”

Without giving law enforcement the tools to arrest and jail abusers, she said, the cameras wouldn’t be effective. “I mean, the whole purpose is to stop this. There’s no teeth [without an injunction].” 

conceptual illustration showing layers of imagery that reference surveillance, policing, and domestic violence
JOAN WONG

Even with video, no smoking gun

Domestic violence advocates say they’re not surprised that women facing abuse would hesitate to conform to the rules set out by the Cape Coral police. Almost half of domestic violence incidents go unreported, and filing an injunction can complicate the situations that survivors find themselves in. Survivors might not be ready (or able) to leave an abuser they still love, share children with, or rely on for financial support—or they might fear the consequences of legal escalation.

“There are a large number of survivors for whom calling the police could feel inherently risky,” says Brignone, the UC Berkeley researcher. “Do I want to call the police if he’s just going to get out in 24 hours and kill me?” 

Ring maintained a specific Facebook advertising budget to promote law enforcement “Wanted” videos. On at least one occasion, Ring produced a video for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s deputy indicated that he would be interested in this service in the future.

Survivors of domestic violence have additional reasons to fear calling the police, Brignone says. In states with mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence, police who respond to a call will sometimes end up arresting both the alleged perpetrator and the survivor. Moreover, survivors can be subjected to retaliatory arrests if an abuser calls the police to make a false complaint. 

These problems disproportionately affect women of color and women with lower incomes. African-American women face a higher rate of domestic violence than all other ethnic groups, except Native American women, but a 2005 study found that they are less likely to seek help because of fears of discrimination and police brutality targeting themselves, their abuser, or both. 

Some advocates say that selective use of video footage can also be turned against domestic violence survivors themselves. 

“Victims of violence frequently present in ways that don’t conform to the stereotypes,” says Leigh Goodmark, a law professor who teaches the gender violence clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law in Baltimore. Police might expect to see “somebody who is meek and weak and passive” on a video but instead find a woman who comes across as angry at her abuser. Or a video could simply show low-key interactions between a couple, providing apparent evidence, Goodmark says, that “‘you’re not scared of this person, so you don’t need the protection.’”

Erica Olsen, the director of the Safety Net project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, says video footage has another flaw: it’s rarely the “smoking gun” that one might expect. “We’ve seen some of these scenarios play out, where, even in the existence of video footage, there is a question about what happened,” she says. If “there’s no audio, [or] video started or stopped at a certain point, everything is questioned. If there is too much video and there is something in there that questions the character of the person, [that] should be irrelevant.”

The police require survivors to cooperate with efforts to arrest and prosecute abusers and, in some cases, agree to hand over camera footage to police. But requiring police intervention may be coercive, dangerous, and not the most effective way to stop domestic violence, according to domestic violence survivors and advocates.

Domestic violence programs that rely on surveillance fall short in other ways, too. These cases are complex, and violations of a protective order don’t always occur at home. Smith and her ex lived in the same small community, and they had known each other since high school. They could run into each other unintentionally. At times her ex-partner came to her home when other people were present—after all, they shared a daughter. It was apparently during one of those visits that her ex secretly obtained and copied her house key. 

Smith says she’s glad that she had the camera watching her front door and that it caught his lie about how he had entered her home in May. She says the camera was like a “security blanket,” and she would recommend it to other survivors. However, she didn’t agree with the requirement that participants could only receive a camera with an injunction. 

It had taken years before she was ready to see her abuser charged and prosecuted, despite years of physical and emotional abuse during their on-and-off relationship, which she described as toxic. At first, Smith says, “I didn’t want to . . . prosecute him because that is my daughter’s father. But at the same time, I couldn’t keep letting him do that.”

Police work, or Ring marketing campaign?

Neither the Cape Coral nor the San Antonio Police Department has released figures on how many prosecutions have resulted from the presence of the cameras at survivors’ homes. In fact, according to Aaron Gamez, the San Antonio Police Department doesn’t currently track any metrics for the program’s success. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office says “The program has been met favorably by the community, and our services are in demand,” but has not provided any details on how the office is evaluating it. 

However, we do have some details from Cape Coral. According to documents obtained through a public records request, the Cape Coral Police Department planned to complete quarterly reports and an annual review before deciding whether the department would renew the Ring program. The department said it would conduct monthly physical checks on each device; remove cameras that were not installed, or were damaged or not in use; and confiscate any devices given to people who didn’t have active injunctions. When contacted in September 2020, Seymour said that she had not completed the evaluations but that the program was continuing. Since then, despite numerous requests, the department has not provided information on how the program has progressed.

In an email to police officials, Ring’s vice president of business development, Steve Sebestyen, asked for monthly check-ins and a meeting at the 10-month mark to decide whether to continue the program. The same emails specified that if the program ended, participants would start receiving marketing notices urging them to purchase a Ring subscription 30 days before the end of the 12-month pilot program—at the 30-day, 10-day, seven-day, and two-day marks. Neither Newlan nor Ring officials provided additional information on the planned meetings or marketing messages. 

Outside of the domestic violence programs, emails show close coordination between at least one of these law enforcement agencies and Ring marketers. In January 2019, after a neighborhood on the outskirts of San Antonio was hit by a series of car burglaries, deputies at the Bexar County sheriff’s office found several videos of the burglaries on the Neighbors app. They wanted to use the videos to create a “Wanted” video poster for social media, but the homeowner who had posted the videos then deleted them—so the deputies reached out to Ring for advice. 

In an email to deputies, Sami Tahari, a Ring account manager at the time, recommended that the sheriff’s office put out a public request for footage from other area Ring owners. One homeowner responded by sending in a bunch of videos. Tahari then offered to create a video seeking help identifying the suspect in the video, which Ring would pay to promote on Facebook. “We spend hundreds of dollars on…paid FB advertisement[s] so that your video or image is seen by thousands of people in the community,” he wrote. 

Tahari also reminded his contacts: “When you download a video or picture from Neighbors and share it… on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Nextdoor, please don’t forget to encourage the public to download Neighbors. The more people on the app the more valuable the platform becomes for your agency AND Ring will donate a camera to the Bexar County community for every 20 downloads.” 

Ring then produced the video asking for help from local residents to identify the suspect, with prominent “Neighbors app by Ring” branding. When Johnny Garcia, the sheriff’s office’s public information officer, saw it, he emailed back: “It’s amazing!!!!!! Boom!!!!!! Awesome!!!!!! Will share ASAP!!!” 

Critics have also raised concerns about privacy and digital security in relation to these programs. In December 2020, 30 plaintiffs joined a class action lawsuit against Ring for what the suit alleged are poor security practices.

That kind of promotional deal makes it “hard to know where the Ring marketing department ends and police departments begin,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group. “For a long time, their talking points have been identical.” 

Memorandums of understanding between Ring and law enforcement agencies give Ring the right to review any press release the police use to announce partnerships with Ring. The same promotional language has been used by police departments across the country, including in Cape Coral.

Bexar County representatives did not respond to requests for comment on the exchange between Tahari and local officials. Emma Daniels, a Ring spokesperson, says the correspondence “does not reflect our current practice.” And, she says, Ring stopped donating devices to law enforcement agencies in January 2020.

“The more people on the app the more valuable the platform becomes for your agency AND Ring will donate a camera to the Bexar County community for every 20 downloads.”

Email to Bexar County Sheriffs from Ring account manager Sami Tahari

By that time, the donation program had probably accomplished its goals, says Chris Gilliard, a visiting research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center, who studies surveillance technologies. The broad cooperation with police departments is “a significant part of how Ring got such a foothold in neighborhoods across the country.” 

Ring may no longer hand out free cameras, but it continues to work closely with police departments. And the company has been developing new ways to extend its reach, beyond just expanding its product line and pursuing partnerships with public safety agencies. Ring recently partnered with Lennar, one of the country’s largest homebuilders, to install its new Connected by Ring smart home products in all of Lennar’s new home builds. For some homebuyers, this might be just another bonus feature—as unremarkable as porch lights, sprinklers, or fancy appliances. However, Guariglia at the EFF sees a straight line between the Lennar partnership and the way Ring seeded police departments with free cameras. “If Ring and connected smart home products are more ubiquitous,” he says, it’s “a kind of built-in, permanent advertisement for buying more Amazon devices that can interface with your home and its built-in technology.”

Privacy and consent, but for whom?

Under the pilot programs in Texas and Florida, survivors are meant to share footage of incidents directly with police. But outside of those programs, some videos of domestic violence have found their way into wider venues: the Neighbors app, the internet, and the evening news.

These pilot programs are expanding, even though police departments have yet to release figures on how successful they are. Florida is the first known instance of a statewide effort to expand the use of Ring cameras using money from the federal government.

In June 2019, one disturbing scene unfolded in Manor, Texas, more than 100 miles east of Bexar County. In the grainy black-and-white video, later shared to social media and picked up by local TV news stations, a woman approaches and knocks frantically on a home’s front door. She looks over her shoulder several times. Her knocking becomes more urgent. A man approaches swiftly while she pleads, “Stop! Please, no!”

“Get over here!” the man says. “Get into the car!” He pulls her out of the camera’s frame. 

A similar video was captured in Arcadia, California, in September 2019. Dressed in what looks like pajamas, a woman runs into the frame of another doorbell camera. She, too, is looking over her shoulder as she knocks, but her perpetrator catches up quickly. As she screams “No!” and tries to resist, the man drags her by her hair onto the front lawn. The view is obstructed, but he appears to hit her repeatedly and stomp on her. Finally, he says, “Get up or I’ll kill you.” 

These videos reveal traumatic moments, and experts say the individuals captured on camera have no control over what happens to the images. In both cases, the camera belongs to a stranger, and so does the video. The homeowner is the one who agrees to Amazon’s terms of service and chooses how to share the video—whether it’s uploaded to the Neighbors app, given to the police, or handed over to the media.

The person in the footage “has no relationship with the company… and never agreed to their likeness being cut up, made into a product,” says Angel Díaz, counsel with the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Critics such as Díaz contend that such videos essentially become free marketing material for Ring, which trades on fear and voyeurism.

The company counters that videos like these, upsetting as they are, can help protect the public. “Ring built Neighbors to empower people to share important safety information with each other and connect with the public safety agencies that serve them,” Daniels, the Ring spokesperson, wrote in an emailed statement. 

And, Ring says, it takes steps to protect the privacy of people who appear in such videos. “When it comes to sharing customer videos with media or to our owned channels, our current policy is that we either obtain a release or blur the face of every identifiable person in the video before we share.”

When violent incidents like these are caught on camera and shared, on the surface it may appear that the system of video surveillance and of neighbors looking out for each other is working as it should. Video evidence can certainly aid police and prosecutors. But advocates for domestic violence victims say that when these intimate moments are made public, the people involved are victimized again, by losing their power to make their own decisions. The women in such videos may have wanted and needed help, advocates say—but not necessarily from the police. 

In Manor, Texas, for example, police charged the man in the video with third-degree felony kidnapping. But the woman in the video later told local reporters that she was looking for an attorney to try getting the charges dropped. 

“They’re selling fear in exchange for people giving up their privacy.”

Angel Díaz, Brennan Center for Justice

“The aim is not about [getting] the survivor to prosecute or convincing them to participate in the criminal justice prosecution,” says Tuller, the former director of the women’s shelter in New York City. “The goal is to get them to safety and to get them to share the resources and support that they need.”

In addition, some critics of Ring cameras say that viral Ring videos distort the way the public thinks about the prevalence of violent crime, and how useful surveillance cameras can be in combating it. 

“They’re selling fear in exchange for people giving up their privacy,” says Díaz at the Brennan Center. But the problem with this narrative, he added, is that it has typically not been “a lack of proof” but rather a lack of “interest on the part of the police departments to investigate” certain crimes that affect marginalized people—whether, he added, these were in communities of color or women affected by domestic violence. 

The costs of doing business

Experts in digital privacy and security have their own concerns about Ring cameras.

For one thing, Ring devices have been subject to hacking. In June 2019, the cybersecurity company Bitdefender discovered a vulnerability that could have allowed someone physically near a Ring device to intercept log-ins and potentially attack the household network, a problem that the company then fixed. Then, in December 2019, security researcher Nick Shepherd found that more than 3,500 Ring customer log-in credentials had been compromised. And in one incident in Cape Coral just a month before Smith received her camera, a Black family was subjected to racist abuse after somebody hacked into and spoke to them through the speaker in their Ring camera. 

Ring denies that the leaks came from company databases and cautioned users against reusing passwords. But there has also been unauthorized access to Ring cameras from within the company. In January 2020, in a written response to a query from the US Senate, Amazon’s vice president of public policy revealed that four employees had been terminated over the previous four years for improperly accessing customer videos. And in December 2020, 30 plaintiffs joined a class-action lawsuit against Ring, alleging that the company had poor security practices and complaining that Ring had tried to shift the blame to consumers for choosing poor passwords. In July, Ring introduced end-to-end encryption on 13 of its devices, improving security and ensuring that Amazon employees can’t view or share videos unless they are posted to the Neighbors app by the Ring account holder. However, end-to-end encryption is not yet available on Ring’s lower-end battery-powered cameras, which are among the devices in use in San Antonio. 

Advocates say that digital privacy and security carry particularly high stakes for the survivors of abuse. “Cameras around neighborhoods are a real concern to domestic violence agencies,” says Olsen at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “They don’t want survivors walking from a store to a shelter and being captured on camera.” This means that beyond simply feeling like “an invasion of privacy, mass use of surveillance cameras can feel dangerous and unsafe.” 

Privacy experts including Díaz, the lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice, have a broader concern, as well. 

Law enforcement agencies frequently ask technology companies, including Ring, as well as Apple, Facebook, Google, and others, to share data on consumers. When the companies do share information, consumers rarely hear about it or have an opportunity to object. This means that the main bulwarks against overly broad requests for data on individuals are technology companies themselves. In a transparency report released in January 2021, Ring said it received more than 1,900 requests for information from law enforcement agencies the previous year, fully or partially fulfilling at least 1,090 of them. 

The requests Ring complied with could have been in the public interest, but it’s unclear: Tech companies have a lot of leeway in how they respond when the police come knocking—and how much information they share in their transparency reports. Díaz worries that Ring might “just decide it’s not worth it to invest the legal resources and costs to challenge overbroad requests.” He adds, “That sort of business analysis of ‘how much something is going to cost’ combined with ‘we want to have a nice relationship with this police department’ just creates a very negative incentive” for privacy protections.

Ring refutes the idea that the company’s relationship with police departments creates a conflict of interest on privacy issues. “Ring builds products for our customers and communities, not law enforcement,” the company said in a written statement. “We are committed to being transparent with our customers about our practices and policies, and we design all of our products, community programs, and services to keep customers in control of what information they want to share and with who, and that includes law enforcement.” 

But critics say the Neighbors portal for public safety agencies is one example of a product built expressly for police. “They could just as easily have built a network security camera company and never involved the police at all,” says Guariglia, the EFF policy expert. “If police want that footage, they can bring warrants to the owner of the camera. They did not have to build them an interface by which they could request footage easily.”

Beyond unintended consequences

Among advocates for survivors of domestic violence, even some of Ring’s skeptics say that the idea of using surveillance cameras for survivors is not inherently bad. Instead, they say that such programs require a more honest accounting of the risks to participants, along with more safeguards and greater involvement from both advocates and survivors.

“Having [a security camera] as an option is not the problem,” says Olsen at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “The problem really does come from the fine print. It’s about making sure survivors are informed about the most beneficial use and any potential harms.” 

And there does seem to be some movement toward more informed consent: In April 2021, the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council in Texas—the county is home to more than 4 million people and the city of Houston, and is some 200 miles from Bexar County—announced that Ring had donated 500 devices to give to domestic violence survivors. In an emailed statement, Ring said it was “proud to support” the effort. 

The cameras are being distributed through support organizations that provide direct services to survivors, and council representatives say survivors won’t need to have injunctions against their alleged abusers to acquire a camera. “We wanted to make it as low-barrier as possible, and victim-defined,” says Barbie Brashear, the council’s executive director. “There are many people who never engage in a law enforcement or a criminal justice or court kind of intervention, but they still have some high safety needs.” 

Some domestic violence experts say that the Harris County model is an improvement over the police-run programs “because there’s no element of coercion,” says Brignone, the UC Berkeley researcher. But other survivors’ advocates say that more safeguards should be put in place. 

For instance, they’d like to see programs offering cameras only after extensive safety planning with the survivor to make sure it can actually benefit them, in light of their individual circumstances. (Harris County has taken this step.) Then, before survivors decide to use a particular surveillance camera, Olsen recommends that they and their counselors pay extra attention to the company’s privacy practices. (Smith, in Cape Coral, says that when Christine Seymour, the victim services advocate, gave her the camera, “I don’t believe that she mentioned any risks.”) 

Other experts are more cautious still, saying it may be too soon to implement programs like the Ring partnerships, even with additional safeguards. People eager to help rarely put enough effort into exploring all the potential harms, says the University of Maryland’s Goodmark. “I think the problem that we frequently have in the anti-[domestic] violence movement is that things happen, and we go, ‘Oh, that was an unintended consequence,’” Goodmark says, “because we have failed to think about what consequences could be at the front end.”

This article was co-published by MIT Technology Review and Consumer Reports, and produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Eileen Guo is an Ida B. Wells Fellow. Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with any advertiser on this site.


How Amazon Ring uses domestic violence to market doorbell cameras 2021/09/20 17:00

This AI could predict 10 years of scientific priorities—if we let it

Every 10 years, US astronomers have to make some tough decisions. Outlined in a plan called the Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics, a set of studies produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, these decisions determine the next decade’s scientific priorities for the field.  

The Decadal Survey has set the stage for big leaps in space exploration since the early 1960s. The seventh report, called Astro2020, is expected at the end of this month. Scientific communities, funding institutions, and even Congress refer to these reports to make decisions about where to invest time and money.  

Previous reports have announced major projects, including the construction and launch of large space telescopes and the study of extreme phenomena like supernovas and black holes. The last report, dubbed Astro2010, even delved into the nature of dark energy.  

Because the Decadal Survey is a consensus study, researchers who want their project to be considered must submit their proposals more than a year in advance. All proposals are considered, and all of them (numbering more than 500 this time) are available to the public.  

This year, the topics being discussed range from exploring Jupiter’s moons to forging planetary defense strategies against once-in-1,000-year events like the flyby of a large asteroid named Apophis. Meanwhile, some researchers want to take a closer look at our own pale blue dot.  

The survey committee, which receives input from a host of smaller panels, takes into account a gargantuan amount of information to create research strategies. Although the Academies won’t release the committee’s final recommendation to NASA for a few more weeks, scientists are itching to know which of their questions will make it in, and which will be left out. 

“The Decadal Survey really helps NASA decide how they’re going to lead the future of human discovery in space, so it’s really important that they’re well informed,” says Brant Robertson, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. 

One team of researchers wants to use artificial intelligence to make this process easier. Their proposal isn’t for a specific mission or line of questioning; rather, they say, their AI can help scientists make tough decisions about which other proposals to prioritize.  

The idea is that by training an AI to spot research areas that are either growing or declining rapidly, the tool could make it easier for survey committees and panels to decide what should make the list.  

“What we wanted was to have a system that would do a lot of the work that the Decadal Survey does, and let the scientists working on the Decadal Survey do what they will do best,” says Harley Thronson, a retired senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the proposal.  

Although members of each committee are chosen for their expertise in their respective fields, it’s impossible for every member to grasp the nuance of every scientific theme. The number of astrophysics publications increases by 5% every year, according to the authors. That’s a lot for anyone to process. 

That’s where Thronson’s AI comes in.  

It took just over a year to build, but eventually, Thronson’s team was able to train it on more than 400,000 pieces of research published in the decade leading up to the Astro2010 survey. They were also able to teach the AI to sift through thousands of abstracts to identify both low- and high-impact areas from two- and three-word topic phrases like “planetary system” or “extrasolar planet.”  

According to the researchers’ white paper, the AI successfully “backcasted” six popular research themes of the last 10 years, including a meteoric rise in exoplanet research and observation of galaxies.  

“One of the challenging aspects of artificial intelligence is that they sometimes will predict, or come up with, or analyze things that are completely surprising to the humans,” says Thronson. “And we saw this a lot.” 

Thronson and his collaborators think the steering committee should use their AI to help review and summarize the vast amounts of text the panel must sift through, leaving human experts to make the final call.  

Their research isn’t the first to try to use AI to analyze and shape scientific literature. Other AIs have already been used to help scientists peer-review their colleagues’ work.  

But could it be trusted with a task as important and influential as the Decadal Survey? 

Robertson at UC Santa Cruz agrees that astronomy’s massive amount of research should be catalogued in some way. But he says that while the idea of using AI to assist with the Decadal Survey is interesting, it’s too early to tell if it’s something scientists should rely on.  

“I do think that there are some important caveats about how we leverage machine learning,” says Robertson. One of the biggest issues with any AI is how well humans understand the algorithm and its results. In this case, could the team tell why its AI had made the choice between two separate but similar topics?  

And could humans have come to the same conclusion? 

“As scientists, we develop reputations about whether or not our work is accurate or correct. And so I think it’s reasonable for people to apply those same kinds of criteria for the results from these sophisticated machine-learning algorithms,” Robertson says. 

Thronson and his team have not tried to predict the results of this year’s survey. Instead, they’re focusing on determining where the next big areas in astronomy are.  

Automated tools likely still won’t be used in the Decadal Surveys for some years to come. But if the survey committee does decide to integrate AI into its process, that will represent a new way for scientists to reach agreement on their own goals.  

For now, Thronson, Robertson, and thousands of other astronomers will just have to wait to see what’s next—the old-fashioned way.  


This AI could predict 10 years of scientific priorities—if we let it 2021/09/20 13:00

Companies hoping to grow carbon-sucking kelp may be rushing ahead of the science

In late January, Elon Musk tweeted that he planned to give $100 million to promising carbon removal technologies, stirring the hopes of researchers and entrepreneurs.

A few weeks later, Arin Crumley, a filmmaker who went on to develop electric skateboards, announced that a team was forming on Clubhouse, the audio app popular in Silicon Valley, to compete for a share of the Musk-funded XPrize.

A group of artists, designers, and engineers assembled there and discussed a variety of possible natural and technical means of sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. As the conversations continued and a core team coalesced, they formed a company, Pull To Refresh, and eventually settled on growing giant bladder kelp in the ocean.

So far, the venture’s main efforts include growing the seaweed in a tank and testing their control systems on a small fishing boat on a Northern California lake. But it’s already encouraging companies to “get in touch” if they’re interested in purchasing tons of sequestered CO2, as a way to balance out their greenhouse-gas emissions.

Crumley says that huge fleets of semi-autonomous vessels growing kelp could suck up around a trillion tons of carbon dioxide and store it away in the depths of the sea, effectively reversing climate change. “With a small amount of open ocean,” he says, “we can get back to preindustrial levels” of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

‘No one knows’

Numerous studies show the world may need to remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere by midcentury to prevent dangerous levels of warming or bring the planet back from them. In addition, more and more corporations are scouring the market for carbon credits that allow them to offset their emissions and claim progress toward the goal of carbon neutrality.

All of that has spurred a growing number of companies, investors, and research groups to explore carbon removal approaches that range from planting trees to grinding up minerals to building giant C02-sucking factories.

Kelp has become an especially active area of inquiry and investment because there’s already an industry that cultivates it on a large scale—and the theoretical carbon removal potential is significant. An expert panel assembled by the Energy Futures Initiative estimated that kelp has the capacity to pull down about 1 billion to 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year.

But scientists are still grappling with fundamental questions about this approach. How much kelp can we grow? What will it take to ensure that most of the seaweed sinks to the bottom of the ocean? And how much of the carbon will stay there long enough to really help the climate?

In addition, no one knows what the ecological impact of depositing billions of tons of dead biomass on sea floor would be.

“We just have zero experience with perturbing the bottom of the ocean with that amount of carbon,” says Steven Davis, an associate professor at the University of California, Irvine, who is analyzing the economics of various uses of kelp. “I don’t think anybody has a great idea what it will mean to actively intervene in the system at that scale.”

The scientific unknowns, however, haven’t prevented some ventures from rushing ahead, making bold promises and aiming to sell carbon credits. If the practice doesn’t sequester as much carbon as claimed it could slow or overstate progress on climate change, as the companies buying those credits carry on emitting on the false promise that the oceans are balancing out that pollution, ton for ton.

“For the field as a whole, I think, having this research done by universities in partnership with government scientists and national labs would go a long way toward establishing a basic level of trust before we’re commercializing some of this stuff,” says Holly Buck, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, who is studying the social implications of ocean-based carbon removal.

The lure of the ocean

Swaying columns of giant kelp line the rocky shores of California’s Monterey Bay, providing habitat and hunting grounds for rockfish, sea otters, and urchins. The brown macroalgae draws on sunlight, carbon dioxide, and nutrients in the cool coastal waters to grow up to two feet a day. The forests continually shed their blades and fronds, and the seaweed can be knocked loose entirely by waves and storms.

In the late 1980s, researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium began a series of experiments to determine where all that seaweed ends up. They attached radio transmitters to large floating rafts of kelp and scanned the ocean depths with remote-operated submarines.

The scientists estimated that the forests released more than 130,000 tons of kelp each year. Most of the rafts of kelp washed up on shore within the bay in a matter of days. But in the underwater observations, they found bundles of seaweed lining the walls and floor of an adjacent underwater gully known as the Carmel Submarine Canyon, hundreds of meters below the surface.

Scientists have spotted similar remnants of kelp on the deep ocean floors in coastal pockets throughout the world. And it’s clear that some of that carbon in the biomass stays down for millennia, because kelp is a known source of oil deposits.

A 2016 paper published in Nature Geoscience estimated that seaweed may naturally sequester nearly 175 million tons of carbon around the world each year as it sinks into the deep sea or drifts into submarine canyons.

That translates to well below the levels of carbon dioxide that the world will likely need to remove annually by midcentury—let alone the amounts envisioned by Crumley and his team. Which is why Pull To Refresh and other companies are exploring ways to radically scale up the growth of kelp, on offshore vessels or elsewhere.

Reaching the deep seas

But how much of the carbon will remain trapped below the surface and for how long?

Certain species of seaweed, like giant bladder kelp, have tiny gas bladders on their blades, enabling the macroalgae to collect more of the sunlight necessary to drive photosynthesis. The bladders can also keep the remnants or rafts afloat for days or longer depending on the species, helping currents carry dislodged kelp to distant shores.

When the carbon in kelp decomposes on land, or turns into dissolved inorganic carbon dioxide in shallow seawater, it can return to the atmosphere, says David Koweek, science director at Ocean Visions, a research organization that partners with institutions like MIT, Stanford, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. The carbon may also be released if marine creatures digest the kelp in the upper oceans.

But some kelp sinks into the deep ocean as well. Bladders degrade. Storms push the seaweed down so deep that they deflate. Certain species are naturally nonbuoyant. And some amount that breaks free below the surface stays there and may drift down into deeper waters through underwater canyons, like the one off the coast of Monterey.

brown algae on beach in northern CA
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Ocean circulation models suggest much of the carbon in biomass that reaches great depths of the oceans could remain there for very long times, because the overturning patterns that bring deep waters toward the surface operate so slowly. Below 2,100 meters, for instance, the median sequestration time would exceed 750 years across major parts of the North Pacific, according to a recent paper in Environmental Research Letters.

All of which suggests that deliberately sinking seaweed could store away carbon long enough to ease some of the pressures of climate change. But it will matter a lot where it’s done, and what efforts are taken to ensure that most of the biomatter reaches the deep ocean.

For-profit plans

Pull To Refresh’s plan is to develop semi-autonomous vessels equipped with floats, solar panels, cameras, and satellite antennas, enabling the crafts to adjust their steering and speed to arrive at designated points in the open ocean.

Each of these so-called Canaries will also tow a sort of underwater trellis made of steel wire, known as the Tadpole, tethering together vases in which giant bladder kelp can grow. The vessel will feed the seaweed through tubes from an onboard tank of micronutrients.

drone and boat at sunset
Pull To Refresh has tested its control systems on a fishing boat on a lake in Northern California.
PULL TO REFRESH

Eventually, Crumley says, the kelp will die, fall off, and naturally make its way down to the bottom of the ocean. By putting the vessels far from the coast, the company believes, it can address the risk that the dead seaweed will wash up on shore.

Pull To Refresh has already begun discussions with companies about purchasing “kelp tonnes” from the seaweed it’ll eventually grow.

“We need a business model that works now-ish or as soon as possible,” Crumley says. “The ones we’re talking to are forgiving; they understand that it’s in its infancy. So we will be up-front about anything we don’t know about. But we’ll keep deploying these Canaries until we’ve got enough tonnes to close out your order.”

Crumley said in an email that the company will have two years to get the carbon accounting for its process approved by a third-party accreditor, as part of any transition. He said the company is conducting internal environmental impact efforts, talking to at least one carbon removal registry and that it hopes to receive input from outside researchers working on these issues.

“We are never going to sell a tonne that isn’t third-party verified simply because we don’t want to be a part of anything that could even just sound shady,” he wrote.

‘Scale beyond any other’

Other ventures are taking added steps to ensure that the kelp sinks, and to coordinate with scientific experts in the field.

Running Tide, an aquaculture company based in Portland, Maine, is carrying out field tests in the North Atlantic to determine where and how various types of kelp grow best under a variety of conditions. The company is primarily focused on nonbuoyant species of macroalgae and has also been developing biodegradable floats.

The company isn’t testing sinking yet, but the basic concept is that the floats will break down as the seaweed grows in the ocean. After about six to nine months, the whole thing should readily sink to the bottom of the ocean and stay there.

Marty Odlin, chief executive of Running Tide, stresses that the company is working with scientists to ensure they’re evaluating the carbon removal potential of kelp in rigorous and appropriate ways.

Ocean Visions helped establish a scientific advisory team to guide the company’s field trials, made up of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara, and other institutions. The company is also coordinating with the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge on efforts to more precisely determine how much carbon the oceans can take up through these sorts of approaches.

Running Tide plans to carry out tests for at least two and a half years to develop a “robust data set” on the effects of these practices.

“At that point, the conclusion might be we need more data or this doesn’t work or it’s ready to go,” Odlin says.

The company has high hopes for what it might achieve, stating on its website: “Growing kelp and sinking it in the deep ocean is a carbon sequestration solution that can scale beyond any other.”

Running Tide has raised millions of dollars from Venrock, Lowercarbon Capital, and other investors. The tech companies Shopify and Stripe have both provided funds as well, purchasing future carbon dioxide removal at high prices ($250 a ton in Stripe’s case) to help fund research and development efforts.

Several other companies and nonprofits are also exploring ways to sequester carbon dioxide from seaweed. That includes the Climate Foundation, which is selling a $125, blockchain-secured “kelp coin” to support its broader research efforts to increase kelp production for food and other purposes.

The risks

Some carbon removal experts fear that market forces could propel kelp-sinking efforts forward, whatever the research finds about its effectiveness or risks. The companies or nonprofits doing it will have financial incentives to sell credits. Investors will want to earn their money back. Corporate demand for sources of carbon credits is skyrocketing. And offset registries, which earn money by providing a stamp of approval for carbon credit programs, have a clear stake in adding a new category to the carbon marketplace.

One voluntary offset registry, Verra, is already developing a protocol for carbon removal through seagrass cultivation and is “actively watching” the kelp space, according to Yale Environment 360.

We’ve already seen these pressures play out with other approaches to offset credits, says Danny Cullenward, policy director at CarbonPlan, a nonprofit that assesses the scientific integrity of carbon removal efforts.

CarbonPlan and other research groups have highlighted excessive crediting and other problems with programs designed to incentivize, measure, and verify emissions avoided or carbon removal achieved through forest and soil management practices. Yet the carbon credit markets continue to grow as nations and corporations look for ways to offset their ongoing emissions, on paper if not in the atmosphere.

Sinking seaweed to the bottom of the ocean creates especially tricky challenges in verifying that the carbon removal is really happening. After all, it’s far easier to measure trees than it will be to track the flow of carbon dissolved in the deep ocean. That means any carbon accounting system for kelp will rely heavily on models that determine how much carbon should stay under the surface for how long in certain parts of the ocean, under certain circumstances. Getting the assumptions right will be critical to the integrity of any eventual offset program—and any corporate carbon math that relies on them.

Some researchers also worry about the ecological impact of seaweed sinking.

Wil Burns, a visiting professor focused on carbon removal at Northwestern University and a member of Running Tide’s advisory board, notes that growing enough kelp to achieve a billion tons of carbon removal could require millions of buoys in the oceans.

Those floating forests could block the migration paths of marine mammals. Creatures could also hitch aboard the buoys or the vessels delivering them, potentially introducing invasive species into different areas. And the kelp forests themselves could create “gigantic new sushi bars,” Burns says, perhaps tipping food chains in ways that are hard to predict.

kelp forest off California coast
An underwater kelp forest off the coast of California.
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The addition of that much biomatter and carbon into the deep ocean could alter the biochemistry of the waters, too, and that could have cascading effects on marine life.

“If you’re talking about an approach that could massively alter ocean ecosystems, do you want that in the hands of the private sector?” Burns says.

Running Tide’s Odlin stresses that he has no interest in working on carbon removal methods that don’t work or that harm the oceans. He says the reason he started looking into kelp sinking was that he witnessed firsthand how climate change was affecting marine ecosystems and fish populations.

“I’m trying to fix that problem,” he says. “If this activity doesn’t fix that problem, I’ll go work on something else that will.”

Scaling up

Scaling up kelp-based carbon removal from the hundreds of millions of tons estimated to occur naturally to the billions of tons needed will also face some obvious logistical challenges, says John Beardall, an emeritus professor at Monash University in Australia, who has studied the potential and challenges of seaweed cultivation.

For one, only certain parts of the world offer suitable habitat for most kelp. Seaweed largely grows in relatively shallow, cool, nutrient-rich waters along rocky coastlines.

Expanding kelp cultivation near shore will be constrained by existing uses like shipping, fishing, marine protected areas, and indigenous territories, Ocean Visions notes in a “state of technology” assessment. Moving it offshore, with rafts or buoys, will create engineering challenges and add costs.

Moreover, companies may have to overcome legal complications if their primary purpose will be sinking kelp on large, commercial scales. There are complex and evolving sets of rules under treaties like the London Convention and the London Protocol that prevent dumping in the open oceans and regulate “marine geoengineering activities” designed to counteract climate change. 

Commercial efforts to move ahead with sinking seaweed in certain areas could be subject to permitting requirements under a resolution of the London Convention, or run afoul of at least the spirit of the rule if they move ahead without environmental assessments, Burns says.

Climate change itself is already devastating kelp forests in certain parts of the world as well, Beardall noted in an email. Warming waters coupled with a population explosion of sea urchins that feed on seaweed have decimated the kelp forests along California’s coastline. The giant kelp forests along Tasmania have also shrunk by about 95% in recent years.

“This is not to say that we shouldn’t look to seaweed harvest and aquaculture as one approach to CO2 sequestration,” Beardall wrote. “But I simply want to make the point that is not going to be a major route.”

Other, better uses

Another question is simply whether sinking seaweed is the best use of it.

It’s a critical food and income source for farmers across significant parts of Asia, and one that’s already under growing strains as climate change accelerates. It’s used in pharmaceuticals, food additives, and animal feed. And it could be employed in other applications that tie up the carbon, like bioplastics or biochar that enriches soils.

“Sustainably farmed seaweed is a valuable product with a very wide range of uses … and a low environmental footprint,” said Dorte Krause-Jensen, a professor at Aarhus University in Denmark who has studied kelp carbon sequestration, in an email. “In my opinion it would be a terrible waste to dump the biomass into the deep sea.”

UC Irvine’s Davis has been conducting a comparative economic analysis of various ways of putting kelp to use, including sinking it, converting it to potentially carbon-neutral biofuels, or using it as animal feed. The preliminary results show that even if every cost was at the lowest end of the ranges, seaweed sinking could run around $200 a ton, which is more than double the long-term, low-end cost estimates for carbon-sucking factories.

Davis says those costs would likely drive kelp cultivators toward uses with higher economic value. “I’m more and more convinced that the biggest climate benefits of farmed kelp won’t involve sinking it,” he says. 

‘Get it done’

Pull To Refresh’s Crumley says he and his team hope to begin testing a vessel in the ocean this year. If it works well, they plan to attach baby kelp to the Tadpole and “send it on its voyage,” he says.

He disputed the argument that companies should hold off on selling tons now on the promise of eventual carbon removal. He says that businesses need the resources to develop and scale up these technologies, and that government grants won’t get the field where it needs to be.

“We’ve just decided to get it done,” he says. “If, in the end, we’re wrong, we’ll take responsibility for any mistakes. But we think this is the right move.”

It’s not clear, however, how such a startup could take responsibility for mistakes if the activities harm marine ecosystems. And at least for now, there are no clear mechanisms that would hold companies accountable for overestimating carbon removal through kelp.

At this stage, it’s crucial to carry out controlled field tests to provide more information about the scale, durability, and environmental risks of kelp sinking, Ocean Vision’s Koweek says. Filling in these knowledge gaps will be essential to setting up reliable carbon accounting methods for any voluntary or government-regulated offset programs that eventually allow companies to buy and trade kelp carbon credits.

He does believe that companies can play a helpful role in that, working with scientists and engineers across academia and nonprofits to more quickly deliver the information needed to produce reliable standards and determine best practices. But without addressing any specific company, he also says the science is too premature to start marketing carbon credits from kelp.

“The entire field broadly—the entrepreneurs, startups, investors, philanthropies, scientists, and engineers—we would all benefit by putting time and resources into building out the evidence base together, before we jump the gun and start selling carbon credits,” he says.


Companies hoping to grow carbon-sucking kelp may be rushing ahead of the science 2021/09/19 11:00

Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows

In the run-up to the 2020 election, the most highly contested in US history, Facebook’s most popular pages for Christian and Black American content were being run by Eastern European troll farms. These pages were part of a larger network that collectively reached nearly half of all Americans, according to an internal company report, and achieved that reach not through user choice but primarily as a result of Facebook’s own platform design and engagement-hungry algorithm.

The report, written in October 2019 and obtained by MIT Technology Review from a former Facebook employee not involved in researching it, found that after the 2016 election, Facebook failed to prioritize fundamental changes to how its platform promotes and distributes information. The company instead pursued a whack-a-mole strategy that involved monitoring and quashing the activity of bad actors when they engaged in political discourse, and adding some guardrails that prevented “the worst of the worst.”

But this approach did little to stem the underlying problem, the report noted. Troll farms—professionalized groups that work in a coordinated fashion to post provocative content, often propaganda, to social networks—were still building massive audiences by running networks of Facebook pages. Their content was reaching 140 million US users per month—75% of whom had never followed any of the pages. They were seeing the content because Facebook’s content-recommendation system had pushed it into their news feeds.

“Instead of users choosing to receive content from these actors, it is our platform that is choosing to give [these troll farms] an enormous reach,” wrote the report’s author, Jeff Allen, a former senior-level data scientist at Facebook.

Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement that the company “had already been investigating these topics” at the time of Allen’s report, adding: “Since that time, we have stood up teams, developed new policies, and collaborated with industry peers to address these networks. We’ve taken aggressive enforcement actions against these kinds of foreign and domestic inauthentic groups and have shared the results publicly on a quarterly basis.”

In the process of fact-checking this story shortly before publication, MIT Technology Review found that five of the troll-farm pages mentioned in the report remained active.

This is the largest troll-farm page targeting African-Americans in October 2019. It still remains active on Facebook.

The report found that troll farms were reaching the same demographic groups singled out by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) during the 2016 election, which had targeted Christians, Black Americans, and Native Americans. A 2018 BuzzFeed News investigation found that at least one member of the Russian IRA, indicted for alleged interference in the 2016 US election, had also visited Macedonia around the emergence of its first troll farms, though it didn’t find concrete evidence of a connection. (Facebook said its investigations hadn’t turned up a connection between the IRA and Macedonian troll farms either.)

“This is not normal. This is not healthy,” Allen wrote. “We have empowered inauthentic actors to accumulate huge followings for largely unknown purposes … The fact that actors with possible ties to the IRA have access to huge audience numbers in the same demographic groups targeted by the IRA poses an enormous risk to the US 2020 election.”

As long as troll farms found success in using these tactics, any other bad actor could too, he continued: “If the Troll Farms are reaching 30M US users with content targeted to African Americans, we should not at all be surprised if we discover the IRA also currently has large audiences there.”

Allen wrote the report as the fourth and final installment of a year-and-a-half-long effort to understand troll farms. He left the company that same month, in part because of frustration that leadership had “effectively ignored” his research, according to the former Facebook employee who supplied the report. Allen declined to comment.

The report reveals the alarming state of affairs in which Facebook leadership left the platform for years, despite repeated public promises to aggressively tackle foreign-based election interference. MIT Technology Review is making the full report available, with employee names redacted, because it is in the public interest.

Its revelations include:

  • As of October 2019, around 15,000 Facebook pages with a majority US audience were being run out of Kosovo and Macedonia, known bad actors during the 2016 election.
  • Collectively, those troll-farm pages—which the report treats as a single page for comparison purposes—reached 140 million US users monthly and 360 million global users weekly. Walmart’s page reached the second-largest US audience at 100 million.
  • The troll farm pages also combined to form:
    • the largest Christian American page on Facebook, 20 times larger than the next largest—reaching 75 million US users monthly, 95% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
    • the largest African-American page on Facebook, three times larger than the next largest—reaching 30 million US users monthly, 85% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
    • the second-largest Native American page on Facebook, reaching 400,000 users monthly, 90% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
    • the fifth-largest women’s page on Facebook, reaching 60 million US users monthly, 90% of whom had never followed any of the pages.
  • Troll farms primarily affect the US but also target the UK, Australia, India, and Central and South American countries.
  • Facebook has conducted multiple studies confirming that content more likely to receive user engagement (likes, comments, and shares) is more likely of a type known to be bad. Still, the company has continued to rank content in user’s newsfeeds according to what will receive the highest engagement.
  • Facebook forbids pages from posting content merely copied and pasted from other parts of the platform but does not enforce the policy against known bad actors. This makes it easy for foreign actors who do not speak the local language to post entirely copied content and still reach a massive audience. At one point, as many as 40% of page views on US pages went to those featuring primarily unoriginal content or material of limited originality.
  • Troll farms previously made their way into Facebook’s Instant Articles and Ad Breaks partnership programs, which are designed to help news organizations and other publishers monetize their articles and videos. At one point, thanks to a lack of basic quality checks, as many as 60% of Instant Article reads were going to content that had been plagiarized from elsewhere. This made it easy for troll farms to mix in unnoticed, and even receive payments from Facebook.

How Facebook enables troll farms and grows their audiences

The report looks specifically at troll farms based in Kosovo and Macedonia, which are run by people who don’t necessarily understand American politics. Yet because of the way Facebook’s newsfeed reward systems are designed, they can still have a significant impact on political discourse.

In the report, Allen identifies three reasons why these pages are able to gain such large audiences. First, Facebook doesn’t penalize pages for posting completely unoriginal content. If something has previously gone viral, it will likely go viral again when posted a second time. This makes it really easy for anyone to build a massive following among Black Americans, for example. Bad actors can simply copy viral content from Black Americans’ pages, or even Reddit and Twitter, and paste it onto their own page—or sometimes dozens of pages.

Second, Facebook pushes engaging content on pages to people who don’t follow them. When users’ friends comment on or reshare posts on one of these pages, those users will see it in their newsfeeds too. The more a page’s content is commented on or shared, the more it travels beyond its followers. This means troll farms, whose strategy centers on reposting the most engaging content, have an outsize ability to reach new audiences.

Third, Facebook’s ranking system pushes more engaging content higher up in users’ newsfeeds. For the most part, the people who run troll farms have financial rather than political motives; they post whatever receives the most engagement, with little regard to the actual content. But because misinformation, clickbait, and politically divisive content is more likely to receive high engagement (as Facebook’s own internal analyses acknowledge), troll farms gravitate to posting more of it over time, the report says.

As a result, in October 2019, all 15 of the top pages targeting Christian Americans, 10 of the top 15 Facebook pages targeting Black Americans, and four of the top 12 Facebook pages targeting Native Americans were being run by troll farms.

“Our platform has given the largest voice in the Christian American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never been to church,” Allen wrote. “Our platform has given the largest voice in the African American community to a handful of bad actors, who, based on their media production practices, have never had an interaction with an African American.”

“It will always strike me as profoundly weird ... and genuinely horrifying,” he wrote. “It seems quite clear that until that situation can be fixed, we will always be feeling serious headwinds in trying to accomplish our mission.”

The report also suggested a possible solution. “This is far from the first time humanity has fought bad actors in our media ecosystems,” he wrote, pointing to Google’s use of what’s known as a graph-based authority measure—which assesses the quality of a web page according to how often it cites and is cited by other quality web pages—to demote bad actors in its search rankings.

“We have our own implementation of a graph-based authority measure,” he continued. If the platform gave more consideration to this existing metric in ranking pages, it could help flip the disturbing trend in which pages reach the widest audiences.

When Facebook’s rankings prioritize engagement, troll-farm pages beat out authentic pages, Allen wrote. But “90% of Troll Farm Pages have exactly 0 Graph Authority … [Authentic pages] clearly win.”

Systemic issues

A search of all the troll-farm pages listed in the report reveals that five are still active nearly two years later:

  • A page called “My Baby Daddy Ain’t Shit,” which was the largest Facebook page targeting African-Americans in October 2019.
  • A page called “Savage Hood,” targeting African-Americans.
  • A page called “Hood Videos,” targeting African-Americans.
  • A page called “Purpose of Life,” targeting Christians.
  • A page called “Eagle Spirit,” targeting Native Americans.
A troll-farm page targeting Christian Americans.

Facebook’s recent controversial “Widely Viewed Content” report suggests that some of the core vulnerabilities the troll farms exploited also remain. Fifteen of the 19 most viewed posts listed in the report were plagiarized from other posts that had previously gone viral on Facebook or another platform, according to an analysis from Casey Newton at The Verge.

Samantha Bradshaw, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University who studies the intersection of disinformation, social media, and democracy, says the report “speaks to a lot of the deeper systemic problems with the platform and their algorithm in the way that they promote certain kinds of content to certain users, all just based on this underlying value of growth.” If those are not fixed, they will continue to create distorted, economic incentives for bad actors, she adds: “That’s the problem.”

Read the full report here:


Troll farms reached 140 million Americans a month on Facebook before 2020 election, internal report shows 2021/09/17 03:00

This US company sold iPhone hacking tools to UAE spies

When the United Arab Emirates paid over $1.3 million for a powerful and stealthy iPhone hacking tool in 2016, the monarchy’s spies—and the American mercenary hackers they hired—put it to immediate use.

The tool exploited a flaw in Apple’s iMessage app to enable hackers to completely take over a victim’s iPhone. It was used against hundreds of targets in a vast campaign of surveillance and espionage whose victims included geopolitical rivals, dissidents, and human rights activists. 

Documents filed by the US Justice Department on Tuesday detail how the sale was facilitated by a group of American mercenaries working for Abu Dhabi, without legal permission from Washington to do so. But the case documents do not reveal who sold the powerful iPhone exploit to the Emiratis.

Two sources with knowledge of the matter have confirmed to MIT Technology Review that the exploit was developed and sold by an American firm named Accuvant. It merged several years ago with another security firm, and what remains is now part of a larger company called Optiv. News of the sale sheds new light on the exploit industry as well as the role played by American companies and mercenaries in the proliferation of powerful hacking capabilities around the world.

Optiv spokesperson Jeremy Jones wrote in an email that his company has “cooperated fully with the Department of Justice” and that Optiv “is not a subject of this investigation.” That’s true: The subjects of the investigation are the three former US intelligence and military personnel who worked illegally with the UAE. However, Accuvant’s role as exploit developer and seller was important enough to be detailed at length in Justice Department court filings.

The iMessage exploit was the primary weapon in an Emirati program called Karma, which was run by DarkMatter, an organization that posed as a private company but in fact acted as a de facto spy agency for the UAE. 

Reuters reported the existence of Karma and the iMessage exploit in 2019. But on Tuesday, the US fined three former US intelligence and military personnel $1.68 million for their unlicensed work as mercenary hackers in the UAE. That activity included buying Accuvant’s tool and then directing UAE-funded hacking campaigns.

The US court documents noted that the exploits were developed and sold by American firms but did not name the hacking companies. Accuvant’s role has not been reported until now.

Accuvant was not the focus of the investigation because the sale it made was licensed and legal. A source with close knowledge of the development and sale of the exploit says that Accuvant was explicitly “directed” to make the sale of the exploit by a US intelligence agency and that the company did not know it would be used for foreign espionage. The court documents then describe manipulation of the exploit by the mercenaries to make it a more powerful tool for the UAE’s purposes.

“The FBI will fully investigate individuals and companies that profit from illegal criminal cyber activity,” Bryan Vorndran, assistant director of the FBI’s Cyber Division, said in a statement. “This is a clear message to anybody, including former US government employees, who had considered using cyberspace to leverage export-controlled information for the benefit of a foreign government or a foreign commercial company—there is risk, and there will be consequences.”

Prolific exploit developer

Despite the fact that the UAE is considered a close ally of the United States, DarkMatter has been linked to cyberattacks against a range of American targets, according to court documents and whistleblowers

Helped by American partnership, expertise, and money, DarkMatter built up the UAE’s offensive hacking capabilities over several years from almost nothing to a formidable and active operation. The group spent heavily to hire American and Western hackers to develop and sometimes direct the country’s cyber operations.

At the time of the sale, Accuvant was a research and development lab based in Denver, Colorado, that specialized in and sold iOS exploits.

“The FBI will fully investigate individuals and companies that profit from illegal criminal cyber activity. This is a clear message to anybody… there is risk, and there will be consequences.”

Brandon Vorndran, FBI

A decade ago, Accuvant established a reputation as a prolific exploit developer working with bigger American military contractors and selling bugs to government customers. In an industry that typically values a code of silence, the company occasionally got public attention. 

“Accuvant represents an upside to cyberwar: a booming market,” journalist David Kushner wrote in a 2013 profile of the company in Rolling Stone. It was the kind of company, he said, “capable of creating custom software that can enter outside systems and gather intelligence or even shut down a server, for which they can get paid up to $1 million.”

Optiv largely exited the hacking industry following the series of mergers and acquisitions, but Accuvant’s alumni network is strong—and still working on exploits. Two high-profile employees went on to cofound Grayshift, an iPhone hacking company known for its skills at unlocking devices.

Accuvant sold hacking exploits to multiple customers in both governments and the private sector, including the United States and its allies—and this exact iMessage exploit was also sold simultaneously to multiple other customers, MIT Technology Review has learned.

iMessage flaws

The iMessage exploit is one of several critical flaws in the messaging app that have been discovered and exploited over recent years. A 2020 update to the iPhone’s operating system shipped with a complete rebuilding of iMessage security in an attempt to make it harder to target.

The new security feature, called BlastDoor, isolates the app from the rest of the iPhone and makes it more difficult to access iMessage’s memory—the main way in which attackers were able to take over a target’s phone.

iMessage is a major target of hackers, for good reason. The app is included by default on every Apple device. It accepts incoming messages from anyone who knows your number. There is no way to uninstall it, no way to inspect it, nothing a user can do to defend against this kind of threat beyond downloading every Apple security update as soon as possible.

BlastDoor did make exploiting iMessage harder, but the app is still a favorite target of hackers. On Monday, Apple disclosed an exploit that the Israeli spyware company NSO Group had reportedly used to circumvent BlastDoor protections and take over the iPhone through a different flaw in iMessage. Apple declined to comment.

Note: This story was updated to clarify the nature of the sale.


This US company sold iPhone hacking tools to UAE spies 2021/09/15 22:27

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