Amazon’s Ring Partners With 400 Police Forces, Adding Fuel to an Already Raging Privacy Debate

August 29, 2019, 1:09 AM UTC

Ring, the smart-doorbell company that Amazon bought for at least $1 billion last year, says it has partnered with more than 400 U.S. police forces to gain voluntary access to the video footage recorded by Ring doorbells.

“Today, 405 agencies use the Neighbors Portal,” the company writes in a corporate blog post Wednesday, published after a Washington Post story detailed the expansion of its police partnerships, which had reached a larger scale than previously reported. A July report from Motherboard counted 200 such partnerships.

Ring’s Neighbors Portal draws on the company’s Neighbors app, which shares crime and safety alerts with Ring customers. Through the Neighbors Portal, police can share information with neighborhoods or reach out to Ring customers to ask for video recordings during active investigations.

This map shows the local law enforcement agencies partnering with Ring, many of which list recent activation dates:

The program has also spurred a backlash of criticism among privacy advocates, who question its effectiveness in reducing crime, while arguing it compromises the privacy rights of individuals who are innocent of crimes but nonetheless captured on Ring cameras, particularly in marginalized neighborhoods.

“There are broader concerns with having cameras on every street corner. On the most basic level, it chills free speech and free movement,” says Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Security cameras have been around for decades, but the difference with Ring is that, if police wanted footage before they had to get a warrant. Now, police can request your footage by the app.”

Guariglia said the secrecy that has surrounded Ring’s partnerships with police agencies is also troubling, a concern that is underscored by the large number of cities working with Ring with limited public disclosure.

“This has happened with very little transparency and almost no opportunity for communities to implement some kind of oversight,” Grariglia says. “That there are already so many partnerships says it’s time that we start to think locally, statewide, and even nationally about some guidelines that can dictate how these partnerships should perform.”

Ring says it has “been thoughtful about designing how law enforcement engages with the Neighbors app.” In a separate post published earlier this month, Ring explained the process further: “When making a video request to Ring, law enforcement must reference a relevant case, and can only request video recordings within a limited time and area,” the post said. “With each request, customers decide whether to share all relevant videos, review and select certain videos to share, take no action (decline), or opt-out of all future requests.”

Many communities are divided over whether any security benefits from the police partnerships with Ring outweigh civil liberty and privacy risks. Ring has pointed to instances where installing smart doorbells have curbed criminal activity, such as one Los Angeles neighborhood that saw a 55% drop in burglaries six months after 10% of homes installed Ring cameras.

But such studies are based on small samples, and another pilot program in West Valley, Utah, found that, while crime did drop in the months after a neighborhood installed more Ring cameras, a second, nearby neighborhood that was used as a control group saw an even bigger drop in crime incidents, suggesting that crime fell with or without smart doorbells.

For their part, some police departments feel the privacy concerns are overblown.

“The notion that this technology is scary or that the police are going to misuse it is, frankly, largely inflated rhetoric, because technology works for the police to help keep our community safe,” says Ronald Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association. “Going back to fingerprints, technology has always been a benefit for the police and doing our job more effectively.”

Lawrence says that police agencies have developed best practices around other camera equipment, such as body cameras on police officers, that translate into the use of doorbell cameras as well. Those practices include talking with community groups about how cameras will be used under “policies that ensure that people’s privacy rights are not being violated,” he says. The voluntary sharing of homeowners’ private footage is intended as another such safeguard, Lawrence said.

But perhaps the bigger problem is that Ring’s (and therefore Amazon’s) partnerships with law enforcement agencies are being forged amid a time of growing skepticism about technology giants’ use of data privacy. The debates over adding more cameras to the doorsteps of neighborhood homes has been raging for years and is unlikely to calm any time soon.

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